It gets easier once you accept that nobody is coming to save you.
Kind of like how those eight hour shifts at Hudson’s used to go by a little faster when I realized that I wouldn’t be going home early. Or how once I forgot I was exercising, I could run miles and miles without thinking about how tired I was.
I don’t flinch at the sound of shoe leather against gravel, anymore. I don’t blink when I hear a rifle being loaded or sense a clenched fist nearing my left temple. The canvas bag over my head doesn‘t irritate my skin anymore.
I know what is going to happen to me. They didn’t try to keep it a secret. I was only in this dark room a couple hours before they brought in a guy who could speak English. My face was already torn open and pulpy from the first beating. I could barely hear him through the ringing of my ears.
“How are you doing?” He laughed and put his cigar out on the table between us. “I’ve got to tell you, you don’t look so good.”
“What’s going on? What do they want?” I asked, hoping this guy wasn’t all asshole.
“You remember a couple months ago? It was all over the news. Family man. Three kids. Got his head chopped off on live TV?”
I stared back.
I did remember. Me and a few of the other guys had all seen it together, on the small TV they had at some hospital we were staying in for the night. It was eerie. I remember how laid back they were about it. “Oh, nothing going on here.” Their calm faces teased. “Just slicing this guy’s head off.” And that’s how it was. A complete man one second, a head rolling on the floor the next. Nothing too fancy. I was even able to eat lunch an hour later, without getting nauseous or anything. Even with my weak stomach. It was a sloppy joe. A mother fucking sloppy joe.
You know how, in the wake of a tragedy, people use that tired old line about hearing about these sorts of things, but never expecting them to happen to them? You know, I’ve seen people’s homes burn down before, but I never expected it to happen to me. Or, I’ve heard about people being robbed at the ATM, but I never thought it would happen to me. Well, when I saw that guy’s head being chopped from his body, I thought about how it would feel if that happened to me. It probably wouldn’t even hurt. At least not too bad. I knew that there was a possibility that something like that could happen to me. But I also thought that thinking about it meant that it would never happen. As if mentally preparing yourself for something horrible made you exempt from it. I’ve thought about things in these terms since I was a little kid.
I tried a few times to escape from my cell, always knowing it was of no real use. Even if I could get out of the five by five metal box steaming with my own sweat, reeking of my own shit, there’d probably be nowhere to go. There are always men lurking, stocked with guns that probably weigh more than me.
I often wonder if this was really meant to be my end. Am I really supposed to go out like this? It just seems too epic a death for a guy who never really left Tennessee. Except for this one time. And look where that landed me. I’m not complaining, I just feel like I should have died like anyone else. Like any normal person. I should have gone quietly. In my sleep. A car accident, maybe. Something a little less dramatic.
I think about you a lot, too. I think about how you told me not to go, how you’d never forgive me if I died over here. Or even got hurt over here. I’m calling your bullshit, now. I know you forgive me already. You acted real tough at the airport. It was cute. You were trying to protect me in your own way. I loved you for it.
“Just be careful, Andy.” You were the only one who I’d let call me that. I wouldn’t even let my mom call me Andy. “Look behind you every once in a while. Or whatever it is they train you to do.” Your smile was weak. Shaking. You laughed and I could already hear the tears. You kept swallowing air, trying to hold the tears back, prolonging the inevitable.
I wish you would have cried that day. I want that for you more than anything in the world. It makes me sick to think of you back home, crying alone in our bedroom because you didn’t want to cry in front of me. Because you wanted to be strong for me. I think of how you’ll always be choking on those words that you wanted to say to me, the things you wanted to yell at me the last time you ever saw me. You’re just a selfish piece of shit, Andy. Or, I need you. How could you leave me? That’s what I imagine you wanted to say. Instead of calling me an asshole or punching me in the nose, you smiled and kissed me goodbye in the sweet way that you do.
The plane ride had been smooth enough. Not like that flight to Los Angeles when I was a kid. The only other plane I had been on. Hardly any turbulence this time. I thought it was a good omen. That was the first time I met Rexrode. The first time I met anyone from my unit, actually. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to fall asleep. He started yapping right away, though. I don’t think we were even in the air before he had asked me whether I was married or had a girl back down on the ground. He smelled like Misty’s cigarettes. Those horrible things you used to chain smoke to look older. You were smoking them that first night we met at Shep’s place. You leaned against the wall in the crowded garage, tilting your head to the side each time you exhaled. Attempting to seem seductive and sophisticated in your wrinkled sundress.
“So, what’s she like?” he asked, reclining his chair back.
“Who?” I asked, already losing track of our mediocre conversation.
“The girl on the ground. Your lady.” He laughed.
“She’s cool, I guess.” I felt weird talking about you when you weren’t around.
“She cute, man?” he asked.
“That’s why she’s my lady.”
He turned out to be a good guy, I learned later. Most of them were. It wasn’t like in those war movies, though. We didn’t hold each other up by the backs of our uniforms as we climbed steep hills. Nobody ever had to carry another person over their shoulder in the chaos of battle. I never had to stare into the eyes of a dying comrade and hold his hand as he made his way into the light. We never had a chance to feel that intense bond. Nothing ever happened to us. We were bored most of the time. We’d play poker with the cards that Carter’s wife put in his suitcase. We’d drink the whiskey we found at the local convenience stores, but we’d only buy the names we knew from back home. It felt like we were meeting up with old friends, throwing back double shots of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. Sometimes the guys would have conversations about their normal lives when the mood was nostalgic enough. I didn’t take part in those.
I remember the worst things now. The memories can be triggered by anything, really. The humidity in this room reminds me of that time we went to Miami. You wanted to see the ocean, and I wanted to do it right. We both got the week off work, and I drove us down in the Tacoma. When we got there, all you wanted to do was walk up and down the beach, over and over again. You wouldn’t stay in the water for more than five minutes at a time, even when I was trying to teach you how to swim. You just wanted to walk, and I held your hand and walked with you. You wore that green bathing suit that I like. The one with the beads on the straps. Your hair was still damp from our last stint in the water and it curled in that way that you hate. Your nose was already getting sunburned. You wouldn’t stop thanking me for taking you there. Kept stopping and standing up on your tiptoes to kiss my chin in that giddy sort of gratitude I thought only a child could feel.
Or that morning, not so long before I left, when you woke me up early and told me to get in the car. It was my day off, a Wednesday, and the sun was already out at seven in the morning. You wouldn’t tell me where we were going. You just threw a pair of my old jeans, a sweatshirt, and my boots on the bed and told me to get dressed. You drove. I felt awkward about that. I asked if you could just give me the directions and let me drive, but you wouldn’t go for it. When we were out in the middle of nowhere, you pulled into a rest stop and parked.
“Gotta pee already?” I asked.
You just rolled your eyes and told me to get out and follow you.
You walked past the bathrooms and the weird little bulletin boards with pictures of missing children and fliers for landscapers. Once we were far enough from anything man-made, we walked through dead weeds that came up to our knees, scaling a hill. You looked back every couple of minutes to make sure I hadn’t fallen too far behind. Sweat dotted your forehead, but you looked more focused than I had ever seen you. When we’d gotten pretty far up, you made a sharp turn and stopped in front of a giant rock.
“Here we are.” You put your hands on your hips in triumph.
I looked around and then back at you.“You brought me to a giant rock?”
You giggled and walked around to the other side of the boulder, hunched down, and disappeared from my sight. I followed you and saw that the rock was hiding an entrance to a small cave. You were sitting Indian-style. And there was just enough room for me to crawl in and sit beside you.
From where we were, we could see everything around us, for miles and miles. I could see our car, still alone in the parking lot. Past the rest stop and the highway, were just fields of weeds, yellow grass, and patches of wildflowers.
“It’s great, right?”
“We should move the mattress up here. Survive off of pop tarts and granola bars.” I laughed, but, on some level, I really wanted to.
“Maybe one day.” Then you reached into your bag and pulled out two oranges. You handed one to me and started peeling your own. I didn’t think to ask why you had brought oranges. They had always been my favorite fruit, but I didn’t remember telling you that. Why would I? When I had pulled all of the skin off and tossed it down to my feet, I pulled a slice from the fruit started to chew on it. The citrus burst in my mouth and I felt like a little kid, again. Just sitting in my backyard on a summer afternoon, eating an orange in the sunlight.
I’m glad that I’ve got this bag over my head. I’m not sure how these guys would react to a grown man sobbing like an old woman. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the best situation for me, though. Not like it really matters. Could things really get any worse for me? It’s so weird− all the crying I’ve been doing lately. I hardly ever cry. You know this. I would say that you’ve never seen me cry, but that wouldn’t be true. There was that one time. I forgot Mom’s birthday. It occurred to me the next day when I was writing the date on a deposit slip. I cashed the check, we walked back out to the truck, and as soon as we had merged back onto the street, the tears started up. What kind of asshole forgets his mother’s birthday? She pretended not to be mad, gave me a hug and said she understood that I had been busy. That didn’t ease my conscience at all. I imagined what a mess she must have been the day before. No calls on her birthday, not even from her only son. I hope she’s forgotten that by now.
That night in bed, you played with my hair as we watched TV. I was trying to ignore your humming and pay attention to whatever it was we were watching. You pulled yourself up close to me, grabbed the remote, and turned off the TV. You started whispering in my ear.
“I love you, I love you, I love you” Over and over, slow and melodic.
“Words lose their meaning with repetition.” I felt like a piece of shit even as I said it.
“Not when people mean what they say.”
You detached yourself from me, rolled out of the bed, and left the room. You didn’t talk to me for two days. I’m not so sure you ever forgave me. I don’t know how you could forgive me for saying something like that.
The first time we met, at that party at Shep’s apartment, you didn’t like me. I was about to punch the guy you were with in the face because he had some shit to say about Shep’s father, who had practically raised me. You called me an asshole in front of everyone. I can’t remember how we got past that point and moved on to where you could stand being in a room with me, and, finally, where you told me you loved me. A lot of the time, I think you were right the first time.
The day they got me, we were all at some outdoor market. It reminded me of when my mom used to take me to the old fairgrounds on Saturdays. People would come out and sell their crafts, the carrots they grew in their gardens, ugly puppies. Rexrode and I were standing in front of a fruit stand. He was comparing two kiwis. I was holding an orange up to my nose. Sniffing. Then peeling. Trying to remember our cave. All of a sudden I felt a violent thud on the back of my skull. The orange fell from my hand, onto the cement. Rexrode turned around and I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was worse than the face I made when we were going through the turbulence on the flight to L.A., worse than the face you made when you found out I was leaving, almost as bad as the face you made that night I rejected your “I love you”s.
He reached for his gun, but as soon as he did, someone from behind me shot him in the stomach, and his body sprawled out across my fallen orange. After that, the next thing I remember is waking up in that room where two guys pissed all over me as a few others watched. When they were sure I was awake, the biggest one pulled me up and threw me against the wall, punched me in the face a few times, and let me slide to the floor, back to where I had started. The others crowded around me and let me have it. It felt as though my bones had been crushed underneath their boots and my muscles had been pulled out and stretched. I wasn’t concerned with the pain as much as I was with the realization of what kind of trouble I was in. And after talking to Cigar Man, I didn’t really have any reason to hope I’d ever be getting out of here.
I thought you were here the other day. I could have sworn I smelled your shampoo. Coconut. Somehow, I thought, you had found me. I was convinced that our love had transformed itself into a giant magnet of sorts and led you to me. Maybe the coordinates had revealed themselves to you in a dream. I knew I was hallucinating though. I haven’t eaten in days. All the time now, it feels like I’m floating above my body, watching the things that happen to it. It feels kind of like the first time I was high, kind of like sleep walking. I like the feeling. It’s like this isn’t really happening to me, it’s happening to a dream version of me. I pretend like the real me isn’t here at all. The real me is back at home with you, making breakfast or listening to music.
What was the name of that song about floating? You played it on repeat every day for a month. It was irritating at the time. I told you I thought so, but you ignored me and continued to play it until one day you just stopped. And then I kind of missed it. After a couple days I had to ask.
“Hey what happened?” I asked, moving my arms above my head as if it represented the silence in the air.
“What are you talking about?” you asked, looking at me as if I were crazy.
“That song. Why’d you stop playing it?”
“What song?” You put your hands on your hips.
“The only song we’ve been listening to for the last month. The song about floating.”
“Why do you care? I thought you hated it.”
“Well, I did. But now, I feel kind of weird without it.” I knew you’d make a big deal of it.
“Oh,” you giggled, “I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.”
What is it called? It keeps playing in my head. All day. I hear the words and the beats, and I can see you dancing to it in the kitchen. I can’t remember the name of it though. And that’s all that matters to me right now. Do you listen to it now that I’m not there to complain?
I feel like the end is coming pretty soon for me. They are talking more than usual in that strange language I recognize but don‘t understand. Cigar Man’s voice leaks like acid into my skull, he asks where to set up the camera, and I can guess that the sliding I hear against the gravel is a tripod. The dirt below my knees begins to vibrate as men crowd around me. And there’s not much I can do. Someone walks up to me and kneels down to whisper into my ear. Cigar Man’s breath is warm against my ears. He tells me to say cheese.
I pretend that you can hear these thoughts like some sort of telepathic radio transmission, that you’ll hear these last words from me to you. I pretend that after hearing them, you’ll be able to forgive me for leaving you, for everything else. I pretend like I still believe in Heaven and that one day, many years from now, when your time has come, we’ll go walking together again. Except it will feel like sleepwalking. Peeling oranges and splashing salt water at each other’s knees. You’ll put that song on again, and it will be our soundtrack, forever. You’ll play with my hair as we sit in the sand and talk about all that happened in your life, after I left it. I’ll kiss you and forget. Forget that any of this ever happened. Like I never left at all. I pray to a god that I’m not sure exists to never let you see this tape. That it never airs. I do the only thing that there is left to do; I scream your name. In the loudest voice I’ve ever used the only thing I can say is that I love you, I love you, I love.
Samantha Lamph is a writer and adjunct English instructor servicing most of southern California. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside in her back pocket at all times. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mosaic, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Connotation Press, and Vanilla Sex Magazine. www.samanthalamph.net