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Saturday, April 4, 1998
By Paul Ford
I waited for her on the sofa by the stairs. Her father stared at me. "So what are you going to be doing with yourself, Bill?"
"Well, sir, I'm going to work for a while and then try for college."
"Where you working?"
"Still at the bookstore. Saving my money."
"Good. We hope we'll see you even if Caroline isn't here."
"I see Mrs. Pierce in the bookstore all the time."
"We'll have you over for dinner sometime." He yelled for his daughter. After a minute, she came down.
"Hey," she said. "You ready?"
"Yeah," I said. "Let's go." She said, "I got it," but I took her duffel bag away from her. Her dad hugged her and put some money in her palm.
There were two extra hours. We'd planned it. I drove her to my apartment. It cost $100 a month and had some sour-smelling wood in the hallway. I kept clean sheets on the mattress on the floor.
"I don't want you to go."
"I was thinking about that," she said. "I'd stay, I want to, but then I need to leave the next minute. My Dad had a good point. When we're young nothing can tie us down, even if you want it to. You just keep drifting."
"I'm tied down."
"Don't," she said, putting her hand on my middle. "I can't fix that. I'm going to be on a plane in three hours."
"You've already forgotten me."
"You're being an asshole. Look...Bill. Look."
She came over to me and we fell into it, the clothes slipping off and being ripped off where they wouldn't slip. She was shoving at me, biting. I kept looking over at the clock radio.
We made love twice without stopping, bodies like wire. It was May, and hot. Then she looked at the clock, too. Kneeling between her legs, I took a last look over the landscape of her body, the view from below the breasts. I was gasping for breath. There was a spot of blood on the orange sheets. A memory for the laundry.
"So now what?"
"I don't know," she said. "Do you want to drive?"
We went through town, the final tour. Today it was all moonscape. We both felt sticky. Her plane would be air conditioned.
"Just that it's tough," I said. "Like a ghost town when you're gone. Everything's history."
"I'll come back. Or you come for me. I'll make a salary. Benefits. I'll have housing in one year, wherever I'm stationed. We can keep going. There are colleges down south. I'd support you, you know. You can share my benefits, I think. Health, college. We could get hitched."
"I don't want you to support me."
"But I would. Do you know that, when your pride is not so important, when the fact that you can do it yourself is proven--which it already is--you can come to me and say 'Caroline, help me go to college?' Do you know you can say that?"
I stopped for a moment, shifted onto the exit for the airport. "Yes." A shudder in the car.
She put her hand over onto my shoulder. "For Christ's sake."
"But for you," I said, stuttering. "it's not the same.
"It's worse. It's my own goddamned fault I'm going and doing this to you. But I have to go. I won't go to college. And I'd rather talk to you than cry. Wait till I get in the air, I'll weep the whole flight. I'll fill up my package of cocktail peanuts with tears and mail it back to you as proof."
"You'd better," I said, smiling a little. "I just have to get used to being alone."
"Damn straight you'll be alone. I don't want to hear from Cathy about any of those big-haired girls from Colonial Mall picking you up at the bookstore. You encouraged me to do this, to go, remember?" She smiled, the gawky smile that summed her up. "You were so proud when I was accepted. Thank you, you know? This is you."
She paused, put her hand on my leg. "You're driving me because you know I need to go. You're doing it with me, not for me. My Dad doesn't want me to enlist. My Mom wants to puke on me for doing this. But this crazy bastard who's dragging to school by himself all alone on his Dad's social security, who I really worry about, we're about to graduate from school, and he says--'go and join if you want. I'll still love you.' And I know he's only got me, and a beat-ass car, I know. But he says 'go.' My Dad knew he was going to lose me some day, but you had to take it on the chin and you just let me go without worrying about yourself. I see that."
She gave three small, quiet sobs--I count them for later--then stopped. "I want to come when I can," I said. "I've only got the job. And my apartment."
"That crappy apartment. We can live in housing. We have to, I can't live anywhere else, I don't think. In sin, we'll live. Mom will love it. You just have to wait a while. But I'm your family, right?"
"Yeah. You're my family. I'm Bill of Caroline."
"I'm Caroline of Bill. See? Not so bad. I'm a phone call, now too. Once a week. You promised. And you could come down and get an apartment. Weekend passes, you know. Give all the other girl soldiers something to be jealous about."
The airport. Built for seven times the traffic it took. And dingy, because they couldn't afford the janitors. We parked. Undertow pulling us into the ticketing entrance. I got the duffel bag from the trunk and we began to walk through the lot.
She pulled on the bag strap. "I want to carry it," she said.
"I got it," I said. "It's not heavy." And held it until I handed it over to be tagged.