(from the novel. This concerns Lucy, the main character, who went to Iraq as a cook, lost a lover there, then returned stateside to lose a second lover, Gorilla (nickname from bootcamp) to a heroin overdose).
“No, no. You had pasta. I had hummus.”
“Chickpeas, olive oil, tahini. Pita bread on the side.”
“I always forget what’s in that,” Eli says, pushing the hair out of his eyes. It’s getting long now and the curls hang around his face like a veil. He’s growing it out, he says, for a charity or something. He’s like that. Sweet. Kind. Generous with his hair.
“Did you wear the green sweater?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “That was our second date. The first was the ivory one you like.”
“With the flowers?” He means embroidered flowers. Ivory thread on ivory cotton, the pattern vined and vaguely East Indian, invisible from far away. It’s his favorite shirt. Mine too.
I nod and smile. Reach across the table of this date—which is something around number 17—and tuck his hair behind his ear. Not that I’m counting.
When the waitress comes Eli smiles his wide, boy’s grin. “She’ll have the salmon,” he says, pointing to me. “And I’ll have the seared ahi.” The waitress glances at me, then Eli. We’re too young to order like this, barely out of our twenties, but Eli likes it and, strangely, so do I. It’s a comfort to let someone else be in charge. The waitress ticks off choices like a metronome, things for me to choose: Potatoes. Soups. Vegetables. I pick, then order an Old-fashioned because the restaurant is paneled in dark, deep-grained wood, there is a fire burning in the corner, and it feels like a place where someone would order an Old-fashioned, swirl the mahogany liquor and slices of orange, then say something important.
This is what I’ll tell Eli later, when we’re laying in bed. That the color of the walls and the warm room reminded me of something—my Grandfather, maybe. Or my Great-Grandfather. Drinking bourbon in the den under the moth-eaten deer head, even though none of it would be true. Eli doesn’t know how easy it is, creating a story out of one tiny piece, linking it to something else, tracing it back so that everything appears true.
The waitress leaves after Eli orders a double Crown, and we are quiet for a moment in her absence, looking at each other. We’re always like this, like we have to, every time, get used to being alone together.
This is Eli’s story: he’s thirty, but barely looks twenty-five; is a chaplain at the VA, but is heavily tattooed; managed to survive a head-on collision, but is now the proud owner of a memory poked full of holes. We met at the VA. On our first date, the ivory one, he explained it this way: “Imagine someone shows you a ten-second movie clip where some minor character says his single line. Then they turn off the projector and you have to figure out what the entire movie is about. That’s what it’s like.”
He’s more or less right. What sticks is either weighty—the day his mother came home from the mastectomy, the day his father taught him to drive—or impossibly mundane—the formula for converting Fahrenheit to Centigrade, the origin of the color “maroon.” Useful stuff is in there, too: Kings Solomon and David. Job. Even Kubler-Ross. But our dates don’t stick very well.
“You’d think they’d make them easier,” Eli says. We’re on his bed in his house, covers on the floor, both of us half-naked. We’re sitting in a cross-legged embrace of sorts, his legs over mine. He’s fumbling with the hooks of my bra.
“All the parents of America are counting on hooks that can’t be unhooked,” I say. “Bra makers have a responsibility to uphold.”
He laughs, arms wrapped around me so tight I could believe it’s an embrace if I ignored the frantic movements on my back.
“It would be easier if I could see them.”
“Yes, but then how sexy is that? Turning me around to undo my bra?”
Eli sighs, and rests his head on my shoulder, though it’s more a sign of concentration than attraction.
“Of all the things I can’t remember, this is probably the worst.”
“Or the most useful thing you could have forgotten.” I say. I turn my head, kiss his ear.
“Wait. Are you implying that you were once good at this?”
One hook comes undone.
“Not implying, Lucy. Saying.”
He gets another hook, then runs his hand up my back, pulling against the lace strap.
“There’s one left, genius.”
“There are three.”
“When did they start making bras with three hooks?”
I don’t tell him that any girl over 27 has a bra with at least three hooks, if not four. It’s like he forgets that none of us are 18 anymore, with lithe bodies and tits that haven’t started to sag. He always thinks it’s two hooks. Sometimes I kiss his forehead and wonder what’s in there. Is the memory of that first girl buried (who he insists he doesn’t remember, but laughs when I say that it’s a convenient lapse), but still informing everything from here on out? The backseat of a rust-colored Buick Regal, skin sticking to the vinyl seats, a pale shoulder in the dark, the taste of warm Coors, the smell of cigarettes on fingers. But, anyway, that’s my memory, not his.
“Yesterday,” I answer. I reach back, unhook the lone straggler. I think of Gorilla, running his finger over the border of my tank top, pulling me into the car, gently, gently, running his lips over my neck, the taste of Camels and sweat on his skin. How I never wanted anything but to feel the pull of desire, an overwhelming crush, the ability to be loved by someone for only wanting them. I take Eli’s hand, run it along my shoulder. I let him guide the straps off, let him throw the bra to the floor.