by Claudia Ricci
Professor Ricci is an author, professor of journalsim at SUNY/Albany
and a founding principal in "Wordsmith Wars"
Outdoors, in the garden. The light is the color of seawater. There are shadows. There are feathery astilbe tails, swishing like golden wings. There are lilies of every color, cupped to the sky. And there are trees: palm and mango and even, a dwarf apple. Always in a story like this, a tale of evil and temptation, a story of sin and possible redemption, there has to be an apple tree. And of course, an Eve. Only in this case, Eve’s name is Caroline. Cee for short.
Oddly enough, his name is actually. Adam.
“Oh but why?” she asks him. Her eyelashes are as thick and dark as midnight brooms.
“Why do you have to go?”
“Why do you think?” He toys with her earlobe. A teardrop of flesh between his callused fingertips. Then he slides one finger down her neck. Traces her collarbone. Stops right on the point of it. Her collarbone. The rounded nub. It sticks out so far. She’s always been so self-conscious.
“Could you not do that?” She speaks in a low voice.
She sits up. They are parked on the lush green lawn that occupies one side of the hotel’s garden. She is sitting enveloped in between his legs. His arms wrap hers. His arms in fatigues. Hers in a white T. “I’m not whining,” she says, struggling to ramp her voice up to a new note. It sounds false.
She cocks her head back. Her eyes are giant black olives. “I just can’t believe you are leaving me. Again. When you promised you wouldn’t. When you came back you said you would never ever have to…”
He moves roughly to cover her mouth with his hand. “And so now I do. I have to go, Cee. Please don’t make it hard for me.”
She tries to move his hand away with her own two, but his hand is vised there. She smells his cologne. A fragrance her body owns. She makes a small ragged noise as she pries away at his grip. Finally she bellows loud and sharp and starts kicking her sneakered feet. For a fleeting moment, she thinks: this is what it must feel like, to be one of his enemy prisoners.
One long screech, and then she is free of his embrace. She gets to her feet. Her face is red and blotchy. Her heart is slamming.
“Damn you Adam. Damn you. You didn’t have to do that.” She bolts out of the garden. Walks the curved white stone path that ends up in the slate courtyard of the hotel. The doors slide open and she steps into the frigid air conditioned lobby. The chill feels good on her face, which is burned by his hand. She walks past the desk and the dull-eyed clerk and pushes the elevator button. She is going up.
The door of the elevator opens. As it does, she sees into the mirror inside. He’s standing there behind her. He is more than a full head taller than she is. She hesitates, glares at him. They get into the elevator. She turns away from him. Crosses her arms. The door closes. They are going up.
“Caroline, the simple matter is this. I have to hit the sands in 33 hours exactly. Now are you going to spend this last day being angry at me?”
She blinks. Her image of him now: silty. Covered in the fine white and yellow dusts of the desert. His helmet. His eyes. His nostrils. All encrusted. The terrible terrible desert he has described to her so many times. Her heart pumps a little bit faster. Thinking of him like this makes her eyes watery. All those months she spent. Watching CNN. Waiting for email. Cringing at every early morning or late night phone call.
She can’t live life with him over there. She shouldn’t have to. Again.
Tears balance like waves on the rims of her eyes.
But they don’t fall.
Instead, she hears these words. They form all on their own, as if her lips are a forge of their own.
“I’m going. I’m going too, Adam. I’m going to sign up. Join. If you are going, then, hell, I’m going to. I’m not staying here. I won’t…I just won’t do it, won’t stay behind. Waiting. Waiting. I won’t do it anymore. I can’t. I can’t live that way.”
There is a small ding. The doors open. They both stand there.
“That is the stupidest thing you have ever said.” He mutters that and shuffles out of the elevator.
She sniffles. Starts to trail after him. “Oh what, so you think I can’t do it? You think I can’t be a soldier. What I’m too weak, too scared?”
He doesn’t speak. And then he does. “No, Caroline, you are not too weak. You are not too scared. There are just things you could never do,” he says. He starts down the hall.
“What things? What things? What like marching or something?” She is following him. She is hurrying. She hears herself. She is shrieking.
He stops. He turns to face her. To look down into her eyes. He’s smirking. She stares at him. His squared jaw. His pouty lips. His eyes, which narrow into slits.
“What things can’t I do?” she says again, breathing hard, but more quietly now.
He bends toward her. She can smell garlic on his breath. Garlic from the shrimp they ate at lunch. And she can smell the bottle of white wine they shared.
“You couldn’t hurt somebody Caroline. You would fall apart before you shot somebody in the head. And there comes a time when you have to hurt somebody in war. You have to hurt somebody real bad. As in, pow. Splat. Red blood. Dead.”
His eyes –hazel with a yellow streak--widen. And maybe it’s her imagination, but they seem to shine. They seem to shine in some kind of violent color.
She shrinks away from him. He turns, and all of a sudden she sees him. Falling. Fallen. His face blackened, one cheek crushed into the ground. His teeth smashed. Bits of teeth everywhere. And his right leg. A bloody stump lying a few feet away on the side of the road. The fabric of his pants blood soaked. The humvee he was riding in a moment ago, now tipped upside down, the dull grey metal in shreds. The shattered pieces scattered across the road amid dead body parts and a tangle of brambles and bushes.
She shakes her head. She has to make the image go away. “I would do anything to stop you from going, Adam.” She says that so quietly it cannot be heard. And now she is starting to sob. But he is walking away. “Doesn’t that matter to you Adam? At all? Adam?”
He stops again. Doesn’t turn to face her. Speaks into the empty hotel hallway. His voice thunders in her ear.
“Caroline for chrissakes what has gotten into you? You went through two years with me gone. And you knew there was a chance I’d have to go back. And now here I am half-way there. No, three quarters. For chrissakes. Here I spend a goddamn fortune on two days with you in a five-star hotel just so you can ruin things this way? What the hell are you doing?”
“Adam, I just know,” she says, sucking in her breath. “I just…I know you shouldn’t go. Something…something is going to…”
He is too far down the hallway now to hear her. The thick carpet sucks up the word “happen.” There is no sound from his boots.
She stares into the muted lights on the walls.
He disappears around the corner.
She follows him. Something comes to her now. Another vision of him.
She is thinking something she can’t possibly think.
They make love with the television blaring. When they finish, they lie in silence, side by side, changing channels.
“You hungry Cee?” he says after a while.
“I guess. I don’t know. I’ll be fine.” She hugs her knees. She is in a short pale blue silk bathrobe, sitting on the bed, cross legged.
He picks up the phone and orders a bottle of chilled champagne and fresh strawberries and warm chocolate from room service.
After a while, there is a knock on the door. It is about four o’clock. The sun rays are lying across the bed like strips of gold.
The waiter, an older black man dressed in a short red jacket and crisp grey trousers, wheels in the table, covered in a spotless white cloth. The champagne is in a large silver decanter that gleams. The strawberries are piled high in a silver bowl. The chocolate is in a closed bowl astride a small candle.
The waiter offers to open the bottle but Adam declines the offer.
As soon as the waiter leaves, Adam twists off the wire caging at the top of bottle. Then he leans to a chair and pulls out his pocket knife from his fatigues. The blade is a sharp little mirror that catches a narrow wedge of sun and casts it on the wall. He uses the blade to loosen the cork. In a moment the cork shoots up across the bed. Champagne the color of ginger ale slops out of the bottle. He holds the bottle to his lips and slurps in the champagne. Grinning, he offers her the bottle. She refuses.
“Geesh,” he says, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.
He lays the pocket knife on the table. She eyes the blade. She blinks. She is thinking something she doesn’t want to think.
He is bare-chested. In red plaid boxer shorts. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he pours two glasses of champagne. The white fizz foams up and over the top of the slender glasses. He holds up one glass and hands her the other. She raises her glass but averts her eyes.
She looks up at him. She blinks. Her mouth is cottony. Her lips are a grim little line. She raises her glass and the two glasses come together in a dull “clink.”
They dip strawberries into warm chocolate. She eats one and says she’s had enough.
“You know, Cee, lately you are no fun at all.” He dips one after another strawberry into the chocolate goo.
They finish the champagne. He drinks most of the bottle.
They sit in bed, slumped together under the comforter. There is a smudge of chocolate on the sheets.
Soon, she can tell from his occasional snore, and his steady breathing, that he is asleep. She pulls herself from his grasp. She keeps the television on.
She stares at his sleeping face. The soft O in his pouty lips. She picks up one of his hands and kisses the back of his knuckles. He mutters something, but drops back to sleep. She kisses his lips. Her hair falls onto his cheeks.
She makes the sign of the cross and lifts her eyes into the air. “Bless me Father,” she whispers, “for I am about to sin.” Her head drops. “Please, that I may be forgiven.”
She walks to the end of the bed. Pulls up the comforter. Pulls up the sheet.
His feet are bare. The tops of his feet are wired in sparse black hairs. His toenails are square and ragged. Yellowing. They need clipping.
She walks over to the table where the empty champagne bottle lies in the silver decanter. She picks up the pocket knife.
She is not crying or trembling and she can’t figure out why she is not.
She carries the pocket knife to the end of the bed. She sits cross legged on the floor. She reaches up to the bottom of his left foot. She stares at the callused heel a moment, and then, she cuts.
She slashes the knife straight up, from heel to toe, going deep with the knife. Then she switches direction, cuts again, perpendicular this time, so that he has what looks to be a crude red crucifix on the bottom of his foot. Blood spurts out from the cross. His leg jerks back into the covers. Her breath grows rapid as warm crimson streaks the sheets.
She kneels, and bowing over the right foot, she sets quickly to work. Digging. Deep into the other sole.