Nonfiction by Desirée Wright
He was military hair and twenty-something muscle. He had lived large in Turkey on Incirlik Air Force Base and come home to minimum wage. I was California blonde and trying to fuck away a hole in my heart left by the last guy.
He rammed his dick into me as if rapid fire would pound me stupid into love or climax.
I got up after to shower and drown myself because he wasn’t the guy before, the guy whose dick did move me. He slipped into the shower behind me. His hard against my back. He made a joke about scrubbing the dolphin off my ass, as if it wasn’t inked in skin. I laughed. At him. With him.
We were two balloons let go, free floating and vulnerable. The military had kept him in line, focused. I hadn’t touched solid ground since the last guy. I had finished a two-year degree and had no idea where to go next.
We talked about our lives, secluded together, in the car, a hotel room or his dorm. Insulated from our pasts. I loved that he didn’t take life too seriously. He was always ready for a road trip: Oktoberfest in Big Bear, across the high desert to see the poppies in bloom, back to my hometown so he could be my plus-one at my best friend’s wedding.
My Dad raised his girls to be tough, stand on our own, never be obligated to a man.
I still cried when he said he was getting out early, going home to start civilian life, not because it would be the end of us or I couldn’t live without him, but because I was losing my best friend.
I flew to West Virginia to meet his family at Christmas. He bought the ring from his friend at the local jeweler, getting a deal so the diamond was bigger than I wanted. He showed me off just like the puzzle ring he brought back from Turkey.
His parents were still married. His family lived within ten miles of each other. The historic town and turtleneck weather made me see a cleaner version of myself.
I believed that all my sins — the fucking, the drinking, the wanting to be more than a girl like me should want to be — could be washed clean if I was just a good wife who went to church and cooked Sunday dinner with his mom. I said “please” and “thank you,” and “yes” when he got down on one knee. We married six months later.
We stayed in the basement of his parents’ house until we found a place we could afford with a VA loan. He took a job delivering pizza. I took birth control. We tried. Really. We did.
I had wanted to take my time to find a job. I needed to acclimate. I was west coast in a southern state. I pushed back against the centuries of built-up patriarchy, thick like cotton in the Charles Town air, choking the life out of me every minute of every day.
I thought I could use my experience as a certified paralegal to hold out for a high salary. In my first interview, the small-town lawyer set me and my expectations straight. “Paralegal? Honey, we don’t use paralegals. All our girls are legal secretaries.” I took the job. I had to. He wanted to work in sales.
He started with Kirby vacuums. That lasted two months. I hardly slept. Next, it was selling kitchen cabinets at a company owned by a member of his mom’s church. That’s how he got the job. No one told him how to keep it.
I was still bringing my boss coffee and picking up his dry cleaning.
We always got a deal on whatever he was pushing. The vacuum in the closet still had nine payments. We had talked about fixing up the single-level ranch home. I borrowed money from my rich uncle to get the kitchen remodeled. That was like selling my soul to Balthasar. I made the call so we could have Maple and remnant Formica before he moved on to the next job.
My brain and fingers were numb from typing and filing.
The rest of the house had to wait until we knew what his pay looked like at his latest employer. No more vacuums or cabinetry. He got a real job this time, selling cars.
* * *
Headlights in the window. He’s late getting home. Maybe he’s actually making money. I stop rinsing dishes and straighten my spine, pulling my shoulders back and letting my head fall to each side. My neck tightens when I think of depending on him to sell enough to help cover our mortgage, cover insurance, cover our asses. Mental note: check the Sunday paper. Maybe I can find a paralegal position if I commute.
He drops his faux-leather briefcase. Shoes still on. Doesn’t even notice I mopped the kitchen. Doesn’t even stop to love Bo, our adopted lab. He just keeps moving at me with that sweet-stupid smile, the one that made me go home with him after the bar closed the first night we met. I stop wiping my hands on a dishtowel his aunt made last Christmas. The same aunt who told me I was better as a brunette at our wedding.
“Come on,” he says, grabbing my hand, and pulling me towards the back door still smiling.
My feet stick to the Mop-n-Glow floor and for a minute I want to get him naked, before he talks, before everything that’s wrong between us comes crashing down, but he’s pulling and now I just want to see what’s made him so happy, like he used to be when we drank and he talked about his big-world plans after discharge.
Maybe he got a promotion. Maybe it’s a big fat commission check. I mentally order tile.
We’re standing outside and I’m stunned.
“Surprise!” He lets go of me, moves aside with arms outstretched, and starts The Laugh.
The Laugh is part backwoods West Virginia and part Gomer Pyle. It’s The Laugh that makes me regret being at the club the night we met.
“What the fuck?” I whisper as my eyes take her in.
He opens the driver’s side door. “Get in and take her for a drive. She’s yours!”
I want to punch him, kick her tires, smash a windshield with my boot. My inner voice screams so loud my ears ring.
The truth of it floods every vein highway, every cell in my body. I know that when I married him, when I moved all the way across the United States to be good, to be his wife, we both made the biggest fucking mistake of our lives.
His inner voice must have been quiet or mute or didn’t give a shit because he seemed pleased with himself.
Stunned obedient, I get in and turn the key. The new car smell brings me back like smelling salts after a knock-out. Moonlight bounces off the dash. The steering wheel has play, the clutch is hard, and I have a blind spot in the back window from the dealership sticker.
He talks. I drive.
“I got a great deal. We got a few hundred knocked off the top. Employee discount. I really helped ’em out.”
I hit the sugar-lump hills shifting into fourth. The power feels good.
“Next year’s models are ready and we gotta move out the old inventory. My boss gets a bonus AND I got one sale on this paycheck.” He puts his hand up to high-five. I’m driving. Idiot.
Downshift. Gears grind. Body jolt. The Laugh.
When I moved everything I owned in a ’91 Ford Escort with a tow-behind U-haul to be with him, I didn’t have any debt. My car was paid for.
The Escort was back at the car lot. He traded in the paid-for, reliable car for a brand-new Jeep Wrangler after only a month on the job as a car salesman. The payment book and driver’s manual stuffed in the console between us. Now, we had a mortgage, credit cards, and a new car payment.
“I upgraded to the hardtop. Better in winter. We can take it off in summer. You can drive to the Quarry or take the back roads to Harper’s Ferry. You’re gonna love it. It’ll be great.”
Great. Like last summer when I drove him and his good buddy Mike, them drinking Tallboys, me spending the day sober with drunks. Empty cans stinking up the backseat. Great.
“Go easy on the turns. Jeeps are top heavy.” He grips the dangling handle near the window.
My sweaty hand slips. Wheel jerks. I pull off onto dirt.
“Show me how four-wheel drive works,” I say quiet.
He half-turns, new-seat-squeak, to look at me, having saved the best for last.
“We don’t even have to get out to put the wheels in.” I can hear the gurgle and know what’s coming. His ring clanks the small stick between us. He pushes. Looks at me. Then, The Laugh.
I turn hard into our gravel drive. Bo’s barking in the window.
He gets out and goes around to open my door, a gesture he never made before, but has done twice tonight.
I suck in a deep inhale and loosen my grip on the wheel. The ear-ringing stops and for the first time I hear the crickets and rustling in the back woods. I swivel both legs out of the opening and hop down.
“See, we needed a new car. I’m gonna call Mike. He’s gonna wanna see this.” Laugh.
He leaves me alone in the driveway with my new Jeep. I turn to give her another once-over.
I liked driving her. She was everything badass I felt inside.
When I sat in the driver’s seat I felt like I had all I needed in my hands. With each gear shift I knew I could leave him.
I don’t know if I was high from the new car smell or stoned on the realization that this marriage was the mistake my dad thought it was, but the man inside the house, the one who had to learn how to make me come, who couldn’t support us, who gave up on his dreams of being more than a good ’ole boy, had just given me a gift I didn’t want, but desperately needed to drive me back to me.
* * *
The Wrangler took me to classes at Shepherd College where I went back to acting. It took me to the fall play, to small parts in “Much Ado About Nothing.” It took me to the county clerk where I filed for divorce.
He didn’t take it well. He was everything when he was in the cockpit running a preflight checklist or checking the husband box. Our marriage and the rolled-up Turkish rug in the basement were the only evidence that he had a life away from family judgment and Baptist church expectations.
Our last time together in the house on Kearneysville Road, he came home to find the Jeep in the drive and me packing the last of my clothes into his Air Force duffle bag. No angry words. Just dead air between us.
He’s in the living room. I’m rolling up the blue sheer nightie, the one I wore on our honeymoon, debating if I can bury it in the trash without him noticing, when I hear the shotgun load.
I move to the doorway, squeezing silk, one end dangling. His weight sinking into the second-hand couch. He’s staring at the wall.
“If I shoot myself. If I go to hell. I’m taking you with me.” A laugh that wasn’t The Laugh.
I look for Bo. Bile rises and burns my throat. The house, silent. My heartbeat, racing. No fight or flight. Just his next move.
He breaks open the double barrel and sets it at his feet. Two metal pieces, hollow and disengaged. His chest hunches over his knees, face buried, his surrender to whatever comes after wanting to die but not doing it. The moan, his release, the last sound I hear before pulling the front door closed.
My fingernails dig through the nightie and into my fleshy palm. Blood and crescent marks. I re-wrap the silk around my hand and start the Wrangler.
There is no going back, even if I wanted. A loaded gun is a loaded gun.
I left that marriage with my life and my Wrangler. I had just enough room in the passenger seat for Bo.