Joyland

San Francisco |

The Hello Kitty Justice League: Selections

by Marian Palaia

edited by Kara Levy

 

1. Chinook (2012)

 

Cam and I were at the river and I was telling him a story he’d already heard a dozen times:

We were still deep in winter, I was saying, but a Chinook had blown in and so much ice was melting off the rooftops so fast it sounded like rain. Ten o’clock at night the temperature rose from 25 to 45 in half an hour; people were wandering the Missoula streets in giddy shock, but I had the alleys to myself. Valentine’s Day was coming up and I was aiming, as always, to skip right over it. On a tear that week after a cocked-up escapade with Angie, I was running a backdoor trap line, bar to bar, and it’s not like I was so shitty I couldn’t see straight, but I was definitely tilting at a trash can or two. Jesse came out of nowhere. He startled me and I backed up, sat down on the curb like I meant to.

“Go on,” Cam said. Because I didn’t realize I had stopped talking. The story was five years old but it still played loud in my head.

“He looked like an angel,” I said, because that was what came next.

“Because of the halo?”

“Yes. A streetlight down on Pattee Street was blazing behind him.”

“Blazing,” Cam said. He was looking straight at me, his cheek resting on one bent knee, big hands the color of Demerara rum circumnavigating shin and ankle.

“Yeah. Really bright. He looked like one of those paintings of Jesus.”

“Only you can’t see his face?”

“No. Not right away.”

But when he stepped to the side I could see it, and could see that it looked concerned, not to mention cute, with its green eyes and the hair falling into them, and that mouth... there. He held out his hand to help me up, so I reached to take it and rose as delicately as I could, considering the position I was in and how many beers and shots I had only recently consumed, and how many more I was planning to, as if the sun were not going to come up in the morning to shine down on my bloodshot eyes, detonate my stupid, aching head.

He asked if he could walk me home, and I did not say I was not on my way home. I could not say I was on my way to another barstool, and then probably another one, until they were all empty and the doors were all locked and I did not have a say in the matter anymore.

We walked the few blocks to my apartment across the bridge, and the night did take on a bit of clarity that had not been there before. I held his arm and commented on the stars, the arrangement of the sky, and the Milky Way, which I told him resembled the white stripe on a black cat I once had (a lie, but). He kissed me when we got to my steps, tipped my chin up and hesitated just long enough. Me, I held on for dear life, as this was an opportunity I had given up imagining at my door ever again.

In the morning while I was getting dressed for work—tugging on my waitress shoes, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of my apron—I asked where he came from.

“The moon,” he said.

Later I found out that wasn’t true.

 

A year and a half later, fire took out the east face of Black Mountain. It was a Sunday and we were at the ballpark, the game in its final inning and Jesse’s team in the lead. I was the lone cheerleader, but didn’t mind sitting in the bleachers by myself so long as I could watch him play. He was the shortstop, of course, the guy at the center of everything. I saw it first—four, five miles away. It could have been some shiny abandoned thing reflecting the sun, except the sun was already on the other side of the mountain, bound for the west coast and the ocean. It only took the two remaining outs for the fire to spread to acres, and by the time the high fives were finished and everyone had grabbed their beers from the cooler and gone to sit on the grass and watch, all that was left was flame. How fast can animals run? I wondered, knowing at least the cougars and the deer had probably gotten away, maybe down to the river, to the other side. But what about the rabbits? I said it out loud and got a couple of funny looks, but Jesse knew.

He put his head on my shoulder and whispered, “They got away too, Lucky. Rabbits are very fast. Those legs—”

I knew he only said it to make me feel better, but I didn’t care. The things he said to make me feel better, then, always did. 

By the time we’d cleared out and headed for the bar the smoke was already in our hair and our lungs. We could taste it in the popcorn. In the morning the valley was full of it, and we knew it could be weeks, months even, before the return of actual sunshine, and then winter would come and blot it out again. But Jesse was there. He had not left. So I was good. I was insanely happy, cruising at altitude, a line of storms behind me and the next one so far away I couldn’t even imagine it yet.

Even now, looking back, I figure love is a place you get to go when all the other places are too painful. If you have it. If you have it, you get to live in it. Otherwise, you have to live in the world. Which is not always so easy, if you are paying attention.

 

*

 

2. Constellations (2001)

 

You still hear people talking about how beautiful it was, that late-summer morning in New York when everything changed for good, but in San Francisco it was early morning, and foggy, not quite light out. There, and then, I was young and hopeful enough, like 29. Driving a cab to pay for grad school—Master’s in poli sci, concentration in International Relations, a little poetry on the side for symmetry. The news came on the radio as my shift was ending, and when I got back to the shop the other drivers were all standing around the TV or craning to watch through the windows. I stayed outside, knowing we were far from the tall buildings, not on any designated flight path or on anyone’s radar. Still, I kept looking up. I wanted to call everyone I knew in the Mission, in the Avenues, say Don’t Go Downtown. As if anyone I knew was dumb enough or had any good reason to do that.

Late that night I picked up a fare on Folsom Street. A hippy little hippie in too-tight jeans, mascara smeared, honest chestnut hair streaked pirated red and gold, sea-green eyes gathering up the light just to give it back. She was a little bit drunk, but she wasn’t crying like a lot of girls do that time of night. On the way to the bridge she told me about her baby: almost two, too quiet for two, the doctors mostly silent as well, but a nurse at the clinic had let the A-word slip.

“I don’t even know what it means,” she told me. It made her so mad, not knowing.

She was just a kid herself, maybe nineteen, but the dad was in—he had stayed, married her. She showed me the ring, tight around her pudgy finger; she pressed it against the glass between us, said she wanted to see the city the way a person would for the first time, coming across the Golden Gate—blown away at the beauty, the possibility, as promised, as advertised. Her husband was going down in the morning to enlist, since it was obvious we would be taking this fight somewhere.

“He’s from right here in this city,” she said — a boy from the Outer Mission trying hard, since the baby, to mend his gangster ways. She was from South Dakota, a wild child in her mother’s eyes. San Francisco had seemed the very thing.

“Momma don’t want me back,” she said. “She thinks I’m contaminated. She thinks there’s something in the water here turns everybody queer.” She laughed then, in a way that was removed, just enough, from frantic.

She wanted to walk on the bridge. Promised she wouldn’t jump and we both laughed, maybe not too convincingly, but that’s the kind of night it was. I parked at the south end to wait. Told her I wouldn’t run the meter, to take her time. The money seemed so very beside the point and I was tired, hadn’t slept at all, had watched over and over that legion of stunned faces on TV, waiting for the president to say enough people were dead — we weren’t going to kill a whole other country over this.

The lights woke me up, blue chasing red chasing blue, tearing holes through the incoming fog. There were no sirens, but someone—a cop—had a bullhorn.

“Miss,” he said, “just stay there, please. We can help you.” He sounded as young as she looked. And sincere, like he believed in help.

I got out of the car and ran toward the lights; I could just see her, so small in the distance, standing on the rail with one arm wrapped around a section of cable, looking down, looking back—the massive, spot-lit, deco-orange tower dissolving behind her.

When she went, it was in a swan dive, and for a few seconds I could have sworn it was all part of a dream I hadn’t woken up from yet. Lines from a poem I had read for school echoed in my brain: “unsignificantly / off the coast / there was / a splash quite unnoticed.”

But this was not Icarus, as she had no wings. At least not that she had shown me.

She’d left the ring in the back seat of the cab, wrapped in a torn piece of notebook paper on which there were two names: Rafa and Layla. The ring was silver and there was no stone. Dolphins swam its perimeter. When the police asked, I said there was nothing. She hadn’t said her name; she was just another fare. Part of it was true: I didn’t know her name, not yet. Maybe it was Layla, but I couldn’t see her leaving the kid out. Little hearts, like the hoof prints of tiny elk, formed a constellation in one corner of the page. It seemed deliberate, however metaphorically mixed, but I didn’t know enough about the stars then to identify any particular sequence. Surely it was random. What did a kid like that know about stars? Especially since San Francisco so rarely let us see them. But South Dakota. Where she was from. The sky there, I reckoned, must be full of them, and for a moment there seemed some hope in that: light we could not so easily put out.

 

Before I left I tried to find Rafa. Raphael, I guessed. I wanted to say what she had talked about, give the ring back, that scrap of paper. He would know what those deer tracks signified, how much love, and I could tell him her stories were shot through with it. I could say how sorry I was for not stopping her, for believing her, for leaving her alone, for taking her there in the first place.

Another falling body: this one on my watch.

I should have known all along she was thinking about flying. It’s just that it seemed so predictable, so unoriginal; I hated the idea of opting for the obvious conclusion. What a dope I was. So self-involved. But it wasn’t about me. She taught me that.

Her name was Sadie Micheli. I read it in the paper.

There was a phone number in the book but it was disconnected. I called for weeks, waiting for the disembodied voice on the other end of the line to finally give me a new number, but she never did. A friend at the newspaper looked in the reverse directory for me, got an address; I stood at the door wondering how I’d begin if anyone answered, but for weeks no one did. I went by at different times of the day, and the last time a couple in their self-possessed, still-childless early thirties was moving in. They had one of those tiny longhaired dogs—the kind whose eyes you can’t see, who have to be carried everywhere. They had really nice clothes. A BMW. They didn’t know anything about Rafa, about a kid named Layla who didn’t speak, about that young girl’s broken body pulled out of the Bay.

The guy everyone else was looking for was hiding out in a cave in Tora Bora. Or a series of caves—each, I imagined, with its own amenities. We proceeded to bomb the bejesus out of a forgotten place, since that is what we were good at. We were good at something. Me, I couldn’t help but think that guy had the most beautiful eyes—so serene and wise—and that if sending America right off the rails was what he was after, he’d done a brilliant thing. Which is not to say I agreed with it, or said out loud what I was thinking; in fact, I’m pretty sure I sort of stopped talking at all.

 

*

 

3. Angela, Patron Saint of Runaways (2002)

 

In April we set our clocks ahead just like we’d have done any other year, and a month later I said so long to San Francisco out the back window of a Greyhound bus. I Jim Beamed my way through California, Oregon, the damper parts of Washington, and then when I couldn’t stand it anymore got off the bus in Ellensburg and started hitchhiking. We weren’t moving fast enough—I needed to go faster, into a new landscape, one that might shush the racket in my head. My ticket said Rapid City but buying it had been a total crapshoot. It was not clear what, if anything, I hoped to find there, but I had always wanted to see the Badlands and the Black Hills, maybe Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace, that famous big sky along the way. Bury myself in the scent of sage and cow shit, maybe find a loose cowboy—one who wouldn’t care if I talked or not—and make him my own.

A fat trucker with an impossibly bony face picked me up at the on-ramp. His flatbed was loaded high with boards and plywood; it swayed like mad even on the skimpiest of curves. A few hundred miles east we crossed the Idaho panhandle and made the Montana border at Lookout. We came screaming down off the pass, taking some turns on two wheels, felt like. It was late by then; he kept slapping himself to stay awake and I chattered like a mynah bird to keep him that way, but a few times I just knew we were going to end up in the river, and all the worrying about planes and war and the people going to war and the people already there and the people they’d left behind would stop just as soon as we hit the water.

Before that, on the way across eastern Washington, I’d listened to a nonstop stream of talk about Osama and “Afaghanistan” and Peru and how the best thing to do would be to just bomb it all back to some original state and start over. Let God sort it out.

I looked out the window at the still-green high desert and shoved my fist up against my mouth. He didn’t notice.

I had found my voice again, but it only ever wanted to talk about war and a litany of bad decisions, like bombing the IRC headquarters in Kabul for the third time, despite that huge red cross on top of it that said, clearly, for anyone at all to see, “Don’t destroy us. We come in peace.” I had learned—at least some of the time—not to engage, because no one wanted to hear it and because everyone had apparently gone insane.

I no longer really cared or knew where I was going, but I still wanted to get there. We stayed out of the river somehow and got as far as St. Regis. The driver went to sleep but I kept moving.

A lone semi occupied the parking lot and its driver was in the café. He finished his coffee and offered me a ride as far as Billings, maybe farther; he didn’t know yet how far he was going that night.

“Sounds good,” I said. “Thanks.”

His helper was crashed in the sleeper, and not happy to see me when he parted the curtain and the truck started to move, grinding slowly through the low gears, bumping over the cattle guard back onto I-90.

“The hell, Tucker,” he said. “Asshole.” And then ducked back into the dark.

“Fuck you, Johnny,” Tucker said, reaching for the three-quarters-empty bottle I pulled out of my backpack. I let him finish it, and we didn’t talk. I marveled at the darkness, the impossibility of all the stars. We crossed the river at least fifteen times.

A little after 2 a.m. at a closed weigh station outside of Missoula, Tucker drank most of a pint he’d picked up in town, snorted a few lines of speed off the dashboard, and then when I started to fall asleep against the door slid on over to put his hands on me. Only half-awake at first, I kept brushing them off like cobwebs as Johnny lay quiet in the back.

“Quit,” I said, and Tucker laughed.

A voice, like some creepy bumper sticker, said, “Nobody rides for free.” It was Johnny’s voice, and then there were four hands instead of two, and I was full awake and they were pulling me toward the sleeper, but somehow I got my hand on the door handle and yanked. It was a long fall and it knocked the wind out of me, but I knew I had to move before those boys came down off the truck.

A car passed, U-turned and pulled in; a woman got out of it. I sat up in the gravel blinking, got to my feet, and made it about four steps toward the road, then sat back down. I could feel a gash in my right elbow, a knot forming on the back of my head. My vision was blurry, along with my brain.

Tucker climbed down, came over to where I was and hauled me up by the arm. It was the hurt one and I tried to pull away, but he was stronger.

The woman spoke to me. “You okay?”

“I’m—”

Tucker said, “She’s fine. She’s drunk. Don’t you worry your pretty little brain about it. We’re going now.” He started maneuvering me toward the truck.

The woman stood there, leaned against her car, frowning like she wasn’t especially fond of any of her options but still had to pick one. Or maybe she was hearing the echo, like I was, of that “pretty little brain” remark.

I was resisting the best I could, but the distance between me and the truck was closing.

She must have seen what was going on behind my eyes, because finally she said, “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think what? Go fuck yourself.” Tucker’s tough-guy voice slurred as he attempted to propel me onto the running board.

That woman said, “No,” and reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a smallish gun.

Johnny, perched high on the passenger seat and starting to reach down for me, laughed.

Tucker said, “That’s not even real.”

It sounded real enough, though, and did kick up a dirt-clod-and-dust geyser about two feet to Tucker’s left, where she’d aimed it. Johnny pulled his head in, turtlelike, and Tucker let me go and backed around the front of the truck, hands up and out in front of him. I heard his door close, and someone kicked my backpack out onto the ground next to me. All I could do was stand there and stare at it.

Angie walked over, picked it up and slung it across her shoulder. “Come on,” she said. “Before I have to shoot someone.”

 

*

 

4. Tyro (2012)

 

I sense Cam before I see him. At six-four and two-something, he does block out a certain amount of this already-dim bar light, and besides, I’ve been waiting for him. I know what he’s going to ask me, and he knows I know, but he asks anyway, as this is one line of a still-incomplete pattern—a brushstroke.

“Got a quarter,” he says, “for a bushwhacked Indian?”

It is his way of saying hello, despite the fact he is not an Indian, or at least not the kind you’d expect to find around here. He’s as black as I am white. Haiti black, transported to Montana via Key West, New York and points middle east on an insubordinate wind. Maybe he is in search of a new kind of spirituality that will let him transcend this messed-up world for a while. One of these days I may ask him if that’s true, and if it is, how it’s working.

He is not drunk, though I may be. I have never seen Cam drunk, and I have known him going on three years. Clutched in my hand are seven sweaty quarters. He holds his pea-coat pocket open. I drop them in.

A couple of times a week he sits down to talk, or to watch TV with me. Sometimes a baseball game, sometimes the news. Tonight he only thanks me, though, gives me a nod that’s nearly a bow, and he’s out. I wonder where he goes. What he does when he gets there. He seems to have a plan, and I catch myself thinking how nice it would be to have one of those. Again. A method, even if not a proven one, for escaping suspended animation.

The fires come regularly now, and this year the whole town spent the better part of summer and most of early fall waiting for the smoke to leave the valleys—the Bitterroot, the Clark Fork, the Blackfoot. Now it is October and finally clear enough to see the mountains beyond the nearer hills. The smell of smoke still permeates everything, including this booth I am sitting in, listening — but not really — to the poker players shuffle their chips, stacking and restacking them as if the requisite amount of friction will eventually make them multiply.

This year a lot of smoke drifted in from other people’s forest fires. Idaho’s. Washington’s. It occurs to me (speaking of drifting) that Other People’s Forest Fires would be a great name for a band. Maybe Cam and Angie and I will start one and take turns playing the drums. That could be good for taking my mind off natural disasters, and my aptitude, even, for being one.

Most years the fires are our own, after a rainless spring or in a particularly hot summer. Dry lightning ignites the dry grass, and the beetle-killed pines go up stand by stand like so many drone-struck wedding parties in the Hindu Kush.

I still remember watching, back when Jesse was newly embedded in my life, that entire mountain light in minutes from a pinpoint of flame, exactly at sunset when the wind came up. Our team was winning, but man oh man, the wind.

 

Angie times her approach carefully, arriving shortly after Cam has gone, filling approximately half the space he has just vacated. Angie is about three parts mouth to six parts heart, but something about Cam makes her nervous, or shy. Maybe his Zen qualities, his tendency not to get his knickers in a twist. Angie likes hers that way. She still likes life to be . . .  interesting.

 “Hey,” she says. “What’s up, pup?” She’s half in the bag, but only half, motioning vaguely in my direction. “You just despond around this place like somebody’s burnt a hole in your mink coat.”

Despond, I think. Good one. “Someone’s been reading the thesaurus again.”

“Whatevs,” Angie says.

I don’t own a mink coat. No one I know owns anything even remotely resembling a mink coat, except this gal here in front of me who has a fake one left behind by her Serbian grandmother, now buried high on a hill in Butte. But I do get the gist, and Angie is my best friend. She has been since I fell off that tractor-trailer a quarter of my life ago. She caught me, more or less, and since then has been my right-hand gal, talked me out of getting back on the highway, taken my side in bar fights, gotten me into a few.

In addition to which we have been our own brand of terrorists—done some things that left us both wholly stunned, watching the sun come up from some otherwise empty parking lot, whacked out on pure adrenaline. Angie is the one who recently pointed out what probably should have been obvious, calling one morning a week or so ago to say, “Guess what, girlfriend.”

I kept my eyes closed, against a deluge of light. “Tell me, Ange.”

“We didn’t die young,” she said. As if she was saying, “The deal fell through on that farm we were looking to buy.” As if dying young had been the idea all along. As if we are old now. If old is what’s left when young is over.

And maybe dying young was what we were after, as there was no way we wouldn’t eventually get caught, and probably shot. No possible way. By some miracle, though, things did not turn terminal. Angie found God. Me, I fell in love. Either way, we came down from the mountains for good, and four, maybe five years ago had a ceremony: said a prayer for our little revolvers and threw them into the river from the top of the Red Rock.

But we are still attached—at the hip, the shoulder, wherever.

She deposits herself across from me, the usual amount of cross-eyed. Religion has in no way diminished her fondness for whiskey, but she’s got it down to a science—she knows her limits.

“You know what?” she says. “It’s a doggie dog world out there.”

“What are you talking about, Ange?”

“Floods and fires,” she says. “Elections.”

“Oh, right,” I say. “And what about Bruce Springsteen?”

“He’s good,” she says. “Thunder Road and all that.” With her eyes half closed she lets her shoulders dance, softly tapping the table, singing a snatch about sending all those boys away. When she’s done listening to the song in her head she stands up and puts her handbag under her arm so she can carry her drink and her cigarettes at the same time. “Got a date, girl. What about you?”

“Nope. No date.”

“Been a while,” she says, the queen of understatement.

“Right,” I say, but she doesn’t hear me; she’s gone, maneuvering careful and ladylike in those skin-tight Wranglers, between the tables and around the chairs. Head high, teetering a little in her hand-tooled boots but still managing, almost, to disguise the limp—every bit a gal with a design, an evening ahead of her.

As soon as I stop watching, she sneaks up behind me and whispers in my ear, “You ain’t a beauty, Lucky, but hey, you need to get the hell out of that booth. Your man has gone. He has flew the coop. He is not coming back, and you need to get up.”

“I’m on it,” I say. She leaves again. I say, “Just watch me.”

She thinks she knows what my problem is, but that isn’t, necessarily, all the way true.

 

Sometimes, like now, I’ll lean my forehead into the wall next to me, knowing it is antisocial, but a few things just can’t be helped. I close my eyes so hard nothing remains but little sparks of light, and a tiny roar blocks everything out for a minute, save the echo of Angie giving me hell again. About living. About Jesse.

I think how illuminating, not to mention convenient, it would be if life were something a person could hold in her hand, brush it off to get a clearer look, examine the cracks, the smooth places, the bright spots throwing all that light around. I never wanted to be a dinosaur gazing languidly into the tar pits, waiting for a breeze stiff enough to push me in. At one time there was a trail, however overgrown, I knew would get me through to the next safe place. The lack of a particular destination didn’t matter all that much. I knew I would find everything out when I got there. Blind faith was the only kind I had then, and it was more than good enough. It was fantastic.

After a minute, maybe two, I unpaste my forehead from the wall, since I am not crazy and don’t want to be mistaken for someone who is. I cross my legs under me, nurse a beer, write letters on the table with my finger and the condensation from the outside of the glass.

“Dear Jesse, I am at the Oxford. Right where you left me. From where I imagine I still love you, even though I can’t remember exactly what you look like, or the sound of your voice, or what your hands felt like on my hipbones. Oh, wait. That part I do remember.”

“Dear Rafa, You don’t know me, but I still have some things that belongs to you, and no explanation. I tried to find you before I left, but I don’t know how to look anymore.”

“Dear Sadie, I’m sorry I didn’t go with you. To let you know you were not alone. Or to wave from the runway. Throw roses in the rain. The least I could have . . . ”

Layla I just dream about. I don’t write her letters, because to me she is still that wordless infant. In my dreams she speaks in thought bubbles like in cartoons, in a language I don’t recognize. Sometimes I’ll make out a word or two, and think I can follow, but the rest is distorted, indecipherable. Sometimes I’ll wake up and write down what I remember, but in the morning it is as if a Martian has visited and left me a note. 

 

In my waking life at the Oxford I get a lot of cowboys stopping by to say hey; they ask if I come here often, if I ever like to go dancing. Actually, I love to dance, and can sometimes be found in the throes of a mangled two-step at the Top Hat or the Union Club with Angie, who doesn’t care how it, or anything else, looks to the uninitiated. I am careful not to show up or leave there with anyone but her, as doing so could conceivably lead to letting a stranger take over my heart, and I’ve seen how that turns out. I waited a long time to fall in love in the first place, and now look.

A trick I discovered a while back, for discouraging the cowboys, is to turn sideways and slide down on the seat, performing a slow dissolve until all that’s left in view are my bent knees, and my hand when it surfaces—looking I imagine like some Sesame Street sea monster—for my beer.

One night last summer one of those cowboys slid down on the seat across from me, so we could carry on a conversation under the table.

“So what’s your favorite band?” he asked. “Mine’s Rascal Flatts.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “They’re good.” Though I couldn’t think of a single song they play.

He waited.

“I don’t really have a favorite,” I said. “I like a lot of bands.”

“Ramones?” he said. “You look like a punk-rock girl.”

Even though there had been a stretch in my San Francisco days (I still have the T-shirt, somewhere) and I was momentarily impressed he even knew the band, I still couldn’t think of anything to offer the expectant look on his face. The conversation sort of hit a wall at that point so I sat up, stood up, and when he didn’t move leaned down to wave and walked away. As I set my glass on the bar, the bartender said, “You know that guy?”

“Barely,” I said. “We just met.” Then I went home. It was still early, but it was time.

I stayed out of the bar for nearly a week—something I do at irregular intervals, because along with not being crazy I am not an alcoholic, and sometimes it is necessary to breathe some other kind of air, even if it is just a different kind of smoky.

Whenever I stay out of the bar for more than a couple of days, Cam comes by looking for me, to collect a few quarters, sure, but mostly to hang out. He showed up on day four and we went walking in the smoke, pretended we could make out the tidelines on the mountains, from when this valley was part of an enormous lake, full of enormous fish with scales like armor.

Walking with Cam means loping for me, since his legs are so long and he doesn’t seem to be able to slow them down, even when he has to look back to see if I am really coming. I kept up all right, and when we got to Front Street he continued on down the hill, through the parking lot and across the park to the river. We sat at its edge, threw stones, talked about this river and some other ones. He tried to describe for me the conjunction of the Tigris and the Euphrates, told me how from the air those two ribbons of blue, bordered by brilliant, impossible green, cut through the brown desert and came together to flow into the Gulf as a new river: the “Stream of the Arabs.”

“We buried them,” he said, “at the border.”

“Who?”

“Those Arabs. Iraqis. Soldiers.” When something is bothering Cam he forgets how, precisely, to operate his third language. Or maybe he just doesn’t see the point. Either way, he falls back.

“They don’ come out of them trenches,” he said, “so we cover they up.” He dug a trough in the dirt with his boot heel, dropped tiny rocks in like a planting of radish seeds, and pushed the dirt back into the cut with the edge of his hand. “Like that,” he said. “With sand.”

“What?”

But he didn’t answer; he patted the dirt to smooth it, picked up a small stick and drew an intricate design along both sides of that faint scar in the earth. When he was done, he broke the stick into pieces, piled them at his feet, and stared out at the river. He began talking about fish, told me which were his favorite ones. Trout, he said. Brown trout. Perfect for pan frying. So beautiful all speckled in the green water.

He went on to ask me, and not for the first time, to tell him about the one who got away. But I was still trying to work out what he’d said. I tried not to imagine drowning in sand, wondered if this was a true story. A tale more than twenty years old now. He would have been nineteen at the most. Just a tyro, a brand-new American.

“Buried alive?” I asked.

He looked at me for a long time. And nodded. His eyes were wide, bright. He opened his hand and I saw a sharp rock, and blood.

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said, because I knew him.

He threw the rock into the river and wiped his hand off on his pants leg. I tried to look at the cut but he wouldn’t let me. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He wanted to talk about love.

“Tell me,” he said, again. So I started. Again.

“It was still winter. Around Valentine’s Day a Chinook blew in and all the snow and ice melted and came off the roofs like rain. It was crazy, and then I met a guy. In the alley.” I motioned toward town, behind us, like it was all the same to me. Like it was casual, that encounter.

“Were you drunk?”

“I was very drunk. But he helped me up. And he loved me anyway.”

“That’s how love goes.” Cam threw another rock into the river and made his hurt hand into a fist. He reached over with his other hand and held mine for a minute. It was nice. When he let go, my hand stayed warm where he’d held it. I squeezed it shut. To hold the warm in.

We each had one hand in a fist, but not for fighting. We didn’t believe in fighting. We believed in the opposite of fighting, but I don’t think we really knew, at least then, what that was.