"Fifteen years!" My father slapped the newspaper down beside his breakfast plate. The morning headlines proclaimed the return of three American POWs, but I couldn't understand why anyone cared. They were only bodies, after all, buried for years and sure to be rotted and vulgar. Of course, no one close to me had ever died, except my father's grandmother, whom I'd met only twice. The most traumatic aspect of her death was being forced by my father to wear a dress the day of the funeral.
"What kind of a government would take that long?" He smeared his toast through congealing egg yolk and sausage grease before taking a bite.
Mom sipped her coffee and shook her head without glancing up from the coupons she was sorting. "It's certainly irresponsible." From the living room, I heard my little brother's cackles and the thumping of heavy cartoon objects landing on Wile E. Coyote.
"Which government?" I asked, but my father fell silent as he cleaned up his dishes and disappeared into the kitchen. I leaned over to glimpse the front page. I never read more of an article than the headline or the dateline unless it was about the World Cup or a shuttle launch. "Da Nang," I called to my father, enjoying the belligerent sound of the name. "Cool. Have you ever been there?"
My brother and I knew better than to ever ask my father about the war, but on a Saturday morning it was easy to slip up and ask him something which, deep down, was really that same taboo question in disguise. His boundaries changed, depending on his mood. If we were careful, sometimes we could get him to talk about boot camp in the Texas heat, "where the sweat sizzled right off your body before it could stain your clothes." Sometimes even a question about our grandmother could get us in trouble, as if his entire childhood was simply another chapter in the same untold war story.
"I've been there," he said in a quiet voice, watching me from the kitchen with glazed eyes. "Do you want to know what it's like?" I knew better than to answer. "I want you to clean the bathrooms today. Both of them," he continued, ignoring my groan. "War was scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets." Then, he retreated with his paper into the living room, where he turned off my brother's cartoons and put on a Rolling Stones album.
I had started with the bathtub when my brother appeared, slouched against the door frame, still wearing his Spider-Man pajamas. "What're you doing?"
"Cleaning the bathroom. What's it look like?"
"Because I have to. Go play Atari or something."
He rubbed at his nose. "You got in trouble--" he sang in a nasal voice.
"Buzz off, dufus!" I nailed him in the chest with a wet rag, and he fled to his room. Without the distraction he offered, I had little choice but to give in to the rhythm of my punishment, the monotony of scrubbing and wringing and splashing. I only had the floor left to mop when Mom called me downstairs.
Chris was at the door, armed with his water-guns and wearing his denim jacket despite the August heat. Oversized, stained, and threadbare at the cuffs, it was a gift from his brother, Kevin, who had robbed a liquor store or something and bought a leather one to replace it. Kevin had sewn a white cloth onto the back, decorated with an airbrushed painting of the word "Metallica" and an unquestionably female robot holding a skimpy garment away from her shiny, silver breasts. I hated it.
"Commander James, grab your weapons." Chris's enthusiasm held a note of self-mockery he had acquired from his brother along with the jacket. "Sandalwood is being invaded by Imperial Forces, and we, the valiant warriors of Kromwatch, must defend our world."
Kromwatch had been our glorious space fortress located, at various times throughout the course of elementary school, in the jungle gym of our school playground, in the shade of the willow in my backyard, and beneath a bed sheet draped over my mother's dining room table. Hearing him say the name, I couldn't help but smile. "What's up?"
"I spotted Tony Ballard and Troy Strickland crawling around behind my building with their guns. Just ripe for us to ambush them."
"Coolness," I said, then my shoulders slumped. "Except my father's got me doing chores. I'm not even halfway done."
"Oh." He bit his lip. "You need any help?"
I was about to refuse him when Mom spoke from behind me. "Susan, don't worry about the downstairs."
"What do you mean?"
"The downstairs is hardly dirty, really. I'll finish up."
"But what about Dad?"
She shook her head. "He was called into work while you were upstairs. You go ahead and play with your friend. It's too nice a day for you to be inside."
Chris blushed. He tended to blush a great deal around my mom; kindness made him nervous. I ran upstairs to grab my water-guns, and the two of us headed to Stuart's house. "How'd you get in trouble with your father this time?" Chris asked as we cut through the alley.
"The usual," I said. "Geography."
Chris must have called Stuart ahead of time, because we found him in the garage, where he had his chemistry set and a multitude of cleaning products spread out on his father's work bench. He was dumping glass cleaner into a bucket. "Hey, guys," he called, "check this crap out. It's awesome--my special formula, just for Troy and any butt-breaths hanging out with him."
Stuart was a small kid who still had most of his baby fat, and he took a lot of abuse from the stronger boys like Troy. Leaning over him, I peered into the bucket, which was three-quarters full with a frothy blue liquid that smelled of ammonia. "What's in it?"
"A little of everything. Isn't it heinous?"
"Yeah, very heinous. You sure it's not going to trash our guns?"
He looked sheepish. "You don't have to use it." He turned to Chris for support. "But I think it'll stain their clothes blue."
"That's pretty rad, Stu," Chris said. "But it seems kind of, I don't know... Clean."
Stuart sagged to the concrete floor and none of us spoke. Then he jumped up, grinning. "One of us could whizz in it."
We all laughed, and Chris patted Stuart on the back. "Excellent! Go for it, Stu."
"Me? But I thought..."
"Oh, Stu," I said. "You're such a dweeb. I'll do it." I started toward the bucket, but Chris grabbed my arm.
"No, I'll do it."
"We can take turns, all of us."
Chris shook his head. "It's not right."
"Because. Don't you see?"
Stuart moved to stand between me and the bucket. "Because you're a girl."
I was so used to hearing those words from other girls and from boys like Tony and Troy that I could pretend it didn't bother me, but with Chris I was Commander James, a valiant warrior and someone to depend on, or so I had thought. "You jerk," I cried, "that's never mattered before," but only in my head, because there in the garage no words would come out of my clumsy mouth.
Stuart snorted. "You going to sit on the bucket?"
Chris punched him in the shoulder. "Shut up, Stu."
With no way to argue against anatomy, I stumbled outside, flushed and angry, and sat on Stuart's porch. When they had finished, Chris came out to apologize. "Please? We need you. I don't want to take out Tony and Troy without you."
I gave in, of course. We filled our guns from the bucket, the liquid now slightly greener than before, and set off on our mission. Over the course of the heavy, sweltering afternoon, we crept in obscure patrols around the neighborhood, hiding behind bushes, peering around fence corners, searching diligently for the enemy. In the end, however, the enemy found us.
They ambushed us in the narrow alley between Chris's apartment building and the convenience store and outnumbered us six to three. Despite being only morbid fun at the time, the battle would replace the choreographed exchanges sold by Hollywood, becoming the reality of war for me, the way I even now imagine combat must feel--panic, and all of us simply firing away as fast as we could. They soaked us, but we stood fixed, afraid retreat would only make matters worse by exposing our backs, and they laughed, thinking we were fools. As their water saturated our clothes and stung our faces, we aimed for their laughing mouths until the summer air was thick with the odors of piss and ammonia. Then came the inevitable calm as both sides ran out of ammo at once--all of us pointing our empty weapons, squeezing every last drop of liquid out into misty sprays, creating miniature rainbows which couldn't hope to cross the distance to the enemy. Everyone broke ranks and ran.
Back at Stuart's house, the three of us collapsed in hysteria on his porch. "Ha, ha!" cried Stuart with exaggerated bravado. "My name is Troy! Let me open my mouth wider and swallow up all your whizz!" We shook with laughter and adrenaline and staggered to the hose spigot to rinse out our guns. Our clothes were soaked--Stuart's T-shirt glued to his tiny chest, Chris's jacket heavy and dark, their hair clinging to their faces in wet clumps. We rung our shirts out as best we could, but the day was still warm, and we didn't worry about drying ourselves very thoroughly. Chris called a race back to the porch, but I wasn't ready, and he won easily. "Hey, Stu," he said once we were all sitting on the steps. "Get out your soccer ball."
Stuart hated sports, and it usually took a mild razzing from me and Chris before he would agree to fetch his ball, but for once he ran into the garage with an eagerness I attributed to left-over excitement from the battle. We had been kicking the ball around for a few minutes when I spotted my father's car coming down the street on his way home from work. I waved, and he waved back, then pulled to the curb. I ran down to the car, hoping perhaps he wanted to tell me we were going out to Red Lobster later, but as I rounded the hood, he threw open his door and shouted, "Susan James!"
My first thought was he must have found out I hadn't finished his punishment, though I couldn't imagine how. "I cleaned the bathrooms," I lied. "I swear I did."
He dismissed the entire subject with a sharp wave of his hand. "Just what is wrong with you?" I searched around me for clues, but he grabbed my sleeve and shook it. "Look at you." I looked down at myself, at the thin white shirt clinging to my skin, my tiny breasts, the indent of my navel.
"We had a water-gun fight," I offered lamely.
"Wearing only a shirt?"
"Everyone got wet--Stuart and Chris and everyone."
"They're not girls. You are. When are you going to start acting like one?"
I became keenly aware of the twin dark protrusions of my nipples visible beneath the fabric and crossed my arms high over my chest, feeling unnatural and awkward in my own body. "We all got wet..." My face burned, and I felt a hammering behind my eyes from holding back tears.
"Maybe so, but only you gave every boy in the neighborhood a free show." He ran his hand through his thinning hair. "I want you to start home. Now."
I stepped closer in panic. "Can't I ride with you?"
He shook his head. "It's a little late for shame now. You can walk." With that, he climbed into his car and drove away.
My guns were back on Stuart's porch, where the two boys sat staring, but I couldn't bring myself to go get them. At first, it was only that Chris and Stuart would ask me what I had done to make my father so angry and that I couldn't tell them and couldn't think of a lie, but as I stumbled toward home, I ran through the day in my mind--the blurred hours of walking, the bright flash of the battle, the dash back to Stuart's house. They hadn't been looking at me, I insisted. They were my friends. Then I remembered their sudden discomfort when I had offered to add my piss to the frothy blue mixture. I recalled their soaked clothes and matted hair as we stood by the spigot and the way I had looked them over with laughing affection. I remembered the unusual ease with which Chris had convinced Stuart to bring out his soccer ball.
The sun was red and flattened on the horizon, and a growing breeze blew in from the west, cool on my clothes. Gooseflesh prickled my arms, and the skin of my chest tightened. I folded my arms closer and hunched my shoulders, but with each lawn I passed, each barbecue, each game of freeze-tag, I felt the people stop and stare at me with righteous indignation.
When I finally reached my house, where my father's car loomed dark in the driveway, I ran up to my room and locked the door. I wrapped myself in layer after layer of clothes--T-shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, winter coat. Then I curled up on my bed and stared at the wall, at my posters of Pelè and Indiana Jones, tearing them down again and again in my mind, but not moving, not even when my mother knocked softly at my door to ask if I wanted dinner.
At some point, I drifted into sleep. When I woke flushed and sweaty beneath my multiple layers, the house was dark and quiet, and I crept downstairs, drawn by hunger to the kitchen. The harsh overhead light shone on my mother, who sat at the small kitchen table in her silken nightgown, reading a cookbook page by page like a novel. She had the oven on, and the air smelled of chocolate. "Hi, dear. You hungry? There's leftovers in the fridge."
I nodded, afraid to speak. With her faded skin, her gray-blonde hair, and her dingy white nightgown, she seemed more a ghost than a real person, and I felt certain she would disperse like smoke at the slightest sound. I crept around the edge of the kitchen, watching her watch me. "I'm baking brownies," she said. "You can slide the casserole dish in and warm it up." I did as she instructed because it allowed me to break the spell and turn my back to her, but when I opened the oven door, the odor of brownies gagged me. I rushed to the sink and splashed water on my face. My nausea subsided, and I poured myself a glass of milk.
"Have a seat, Susan." My mother pointed to the empty stool. When I didn't move, she sighed and closed the cookbook. A small cloud of flour rose from it and settled on the tabletop. "I worry about you. You're so much like your father."
"What do you mean?" My voice scraped past a thickness in my throat.
"We never talk much anymore." She crossed the room and began toying with the oven mitt. "You're old enough now to realize it's not always you your father is upset with. It's a lot of things he doesn't like to mention, like problems at work..." Grabbing a toothpick, she opened the oven door. "It takes a lot of patience to be married to your father. Sometimes more than I have." The toothpick pierced the chocolate and came out clean. "Brownies are done."
As she leaned over the oven, her nightgown fell away from her chest, and in the ruddy light I saw her hanging breasts, the brown and wrinkled crescents of her areolae, the silhouettes of her nipples. The rest of her remained an ethereal phantom, but her breasts were horribly, undeniably present. I set my glass roughly on the counter, fighting down my returning nausea, and stumbled to the doorway. "I have to go to bed."
"Susan, wait. About today--"
"Mom, stop." She straightened. Her nightgown shifted, and her ghostliness returned. "I don't want to talk about it," I said and retreated upstairs to my room, hurrying past the silent door which hid my father. Neither of us knew it at the time, but a peace accord had been negotiated without a word passing between us. My father would never speak of my awkward, adolescent body again. And I left my guns at Stuart's house, where they gradually became his property. Next summer, I learned to cover myself and run from enemy fire.
Copyright 2003 by Eric Mein. All rights reserved.