Operation Desert Storm played on television. The picture was faintly out of focus, a smattering of grainy night scenes and bullet riddled stucco buildings. On screen, small details were nearly impossible to see. Faces and addresses blurred. In the open desert, outside of Baghdad, winds blew sand, covering footprints and Humvee tracks. No sign to mark the way home.
It was the winter of 1991. I was thirteen years old. My mother, twin sister Cara and I had spent the last nine years living on Camp Lejeune with my stepfather Mike, a Marine. The summer before, Mike divorced Mom. We were back upstate, in Schenectady, the city where I was born. We’d moved in with my grandmother, my real father’s mother. She’d lived alone since Grandpa died. And because my real father had beat her, and because he beat my mother too, and because my sister and I were caught in his fighting and suffered his violence, my grandmother removed him from her life; her own son, for our sake. We took Dad’s place in her home.
We were a family of women watching men kill each other, nothing new. CNN streamed a video on repeat. The luckiest man in Iraq crossed over a bridge that fell to pieces behind him. He looked over his shoulder. A laser-guided bomb had swallowed the bridge whole.
Grandma went into the kitchen to boil water for tea. Even though it felt like the end of the world was coming, her step was light, carefree. “Sometimes,” Grandma shouted from the kitchen, “I think it’s better that Grandpa’s gone.”
Cara rested her head on my shoulder, gave me her weight. Her teased-tall, bramble-stiff sprayed bangs brushed my chin. We jammed ourselves to fit together in Grandpa’s plush gold recliner. Grandpa had missed fighting in his war, World War II, on account of a bad heart. His brother had fought and returned home wearing medals, the good son. Grandpa had stayed home and run a small betting ring for the local mafia, collecting overdue money and breaking kneecaps. After he died, Grandma left his chair in the living room exactly as he’d had it, in front of the television. The fabric on the arms had gone bald from the weight of him. The chair still smelled like Grandpa though—Old Spice and fresh bread, his leather driving gloves.
“Anyone want a snack?” Grandma hollered over the thrum of water filling the kettle’s belly. Mom stared at the television set in a trance. Cara shook her head; she wasn’t hungry.
Our military struck from a distance, mostly by air or behind the cover of slow moving tanks. Our enemies ran. They crouched, crawled bellies to the ground, skittering and scared, from shadow-to-shadow, flickering neon green; NBC’s night vision. People born to parents who loved them, now lights in a video game.
I wondered where their children had gone. Were they tucked into their beds? Orange sparks flew across their horizon, trails of light over our television. They burned phosphorescent, sulfuric, and then landed on houses.
Our new school in New York was another kind of battlefield. We were bullied there. “Twins do it together. You lick each other’s pussies,” the boys teased, begging to see. Their crooked desire for us made the girls that we wanted as friends despise us.
Girls dropped in around our lunch table like vultures on road kill. They called us “Brats” and taunted us about the war. “Your dad will grow new limbs, from the chemicals,” they said. “Ears on his chest.”
“You don’t know,” I fought back; my fatherless life.
“Don’t get caught in the halls alone,” the girls warned. “Don’t sit at the back of the bus. Don’t even think of stealing those boys of ours you don’t seem to want. We’ll cut you if you do. We’ll jump you. We’ll rearrange your pretty faces. We’ll make you wish you were never born.”
So Cara and I ate our lunches in the bathroom, the lavatory farthest from the cafeteria, upstairs near the Science wing. We forced ourselves into one stall, leaned against the cold slide lock doors. Our feet poked out beneath, revealing double occupation. Four matching brown leather loafers with buckles gathered around a toilet bowl, the sound of sandwich baggies crinkling in fists.
“I like you a lot. I love you,” Cara had said during our first girls room lunch, her voice echoing through the hollow metal stall. “But I hate being stuck with you.”
“Me too,” I lied. Without her I’d be eating in the bathroom alone.
We’d moved so many times before Mom met Mike, I had no idea where home was. We ran from my father, from secret place to secret place, sleeping on friends’ sofas, or in temporary rentals, until Dad appeared again like a monster from a horror film, back at our windows, back pounding on the glass, back screaming for Mom to let him in. By the time Mom fell for Mike, and we made it to Lejeune, I willed myself to love it there.
My stepfather had been the wall between us and our real father. Mike liked it that way. He fantasized out loud about killing my dad; it made him feel useful. Mike had an easy way of convincing me that everything would go wrong in my life without him. His proof was irrefutable: look at the past. It was no wonder that I went looking for a man to replace Mike, a boy to both save and use me.
I wondered if Mike watched the war night after night like we did, like a AAA player in the bleachers at a big league game. He’d quit the military at the same time that he’d quit our family. And there they were, his men on prime time, doing what he’d signed up to do but hadn’t.
“Are you afraid?” I asked Cara. She nodded, televised explosions blooming in her eyes. Dan Rather named the battalion numbers of the deployed units. All of those boys, those Corporals Mom had invited over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, finally had guns in their hands.
“Those boys are eating rations now,” Mom said in a voice that was half there, because she had nothing to do with those boys any longer.
The high, tight ring of the phone pulled our attention from the war. I answered the call, thinking it must be Michelle, my best friend from North Carolina. Michelle phoned from base often, worried. Her father was fighting. “Like, sonic warfare could have taken his mind, you know?” she’d cried. She suspected that sounds so loud and high-pitched that they were rumored absolutely silent, were driving her father mad.
Having a half-in-the bag, hair-trigger angry dad was a casualty of the business. Every girl on base knew that. Before he was deployed, Michelle’s father came home drunk on school nights. He’d pull her out of bed and ask her to join him in singing tavern songs. Her Daddy had taught her how to discharge a pistol, to not get pushed down by the kick-back. He could twist together the bobbles of a hair tie better than her mom could. Michelle’s voice always sounded so small through the receiver as she cried at me. I felt both sorry for and angry at her; at least she had a dad. Maybe her daddy wouldn’t come home. Or maybe, if he did, the war would possess the last part of his heart that loved her, the piece of it corps had not taken.
I lifted the phone from the hook. “Michelle?”
“Hey,” Bud, my new boyfriend said. “It’s me.” No other single person who phoned had the audacity not to announce himself. I knew who it was, but I waited for him to tell me what he wanted. “Do you believe in hauntings?” Bud asked in the same way he’d asked if I liked Metallica.
Bud was cut from the same cloth as every boy I liked: scrawny, drawn, pale, a person in terrible need of a vegetable. His cigarette scratchy voice was tired at seventeen. Sometimes he forced it lower than sounded comfortable, put it on to be older, a porcupine hoisting his quills. Bud was as close to a ghost as a boy could be. I met him at the mall, the only place to cruise for boys in town. He wore black from head to toe. He never got hungry. Or had to pee. Or uttered a word about his past. He never said he’d been to school. He never mentioned his mother or his father.
Bud parted his fluffy bangs in the middle, his scalp a road between bushes, a too wide white dividing line. It feathered back, but big, like Heather Locklear’s in Dynasty. A pair of sunglasses propped on top of his head held his hair in place by day. He squinted his eyes like a mole’s in the sun. It was a surprise how beady his eyes were, less like eyes than marker dots on a blank page. During the nighttime he wore those shades over them, sunglasses in the dark. Every pair of jeans he owned tore. His broad-boned pale knees showed through rips round as the moon. He was gangly. His belly sunk in. His hipbones stood at starving attention over his low-slung pants. He had a pout of bee-stung pissed off lips. His dyed-black hair hung halfway down his back in a frizzy blue sheen. Tendrils turning in on themselves; his curls bound like ropes. He kissed me with thin lips and sour breath. His body carried such an odor I could smell him through a closed door.
Bud played bass guitar. Always the same thrumming, four-stringed moody tunes; a few notes, but never a full song. Bud played for the girls, or so he said.
“Do you believe in hauntings?” Bud asked again, annoyed for having to ask twice.
“Mmm hmm.” I said, but truthfully I thought ghosts were for grieving people, good people, not people like Bud. Ghosts are airy light. They are family history. They are gone love coming back to pay a visit. Ghosts tap at the window for attention. They push ceramic vases off counters. They write desperate words on glass. They sit bone-silent in cemeteries.
Bud’s thumb flicked against his lighter, the quick catch of tobacco to flame. “Yesterday, I was at the cemetery, walking. Like I always do.” he said, and then drew in a lung-full of smoke.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I saw a ghost. He wore metal cuffs on his arms, and he had the longest beard I’ve ever seen.”
“Like ZZ Top?” I asked, waiting for Bud to call me darling, like he sometimes did when I said something that reflected my age that amused him. Darling felt so old-fashioned to me, and good, like something a daddy says to his best girl.
“Freaky, man,” Bud laughed through his nose. “You’re funny.”
I hadn’t meant to be funny, though I laughed lightly at the fun he poked at me. I imagined his phantom as paper white, and dragging a length of chain, harmless as the Ghost of Christmas Past, like me. “Stop it,” I said softly, setting each word frail. I needed to sound fragile; that would draw him in.
“I shit you not,” Bud said.
I pulled the phone from the kitchen all the way into the bathroom. I pressed the receiver hard against my ear. Grandma turned from the television, raising her eyebrows. To whom on God’s green earth was I talking? But she knew. He’d been sniffing at her door ever since we moved in. “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Grandma said and frowned.
Cara sat rapt in Grandpa’s easy chair, watching a correspondent report from the top of a building, helicopters flicking by. “He’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing.” She nodded in solidarity.
Boys off of base at Camp Lejeune had lots of hair: curls, silky mullets, chin skimming bowl cuts. Their manes were local, ratty, long and split. Their Moms and Pops were corn farmers, mechanics, tobacco plant workers, and pawnshop brokers. “They’re not like us,” Mike would say. He pretended that coming from the north meant we were upper crust. Our tweed blazers, our crushingly beautiful red leaves in October, our elite colleges who hosted cancer-curing scholars. They belonged to us because we were born in their zip codes.
On the Bayou strip, near Lejuene, you can see a woman dance without her clothes. You can chug a beer or down a burning shot of whiskey. You can buy a bullet. You can ink your skin with your home state’s flag. It’s all strip clubs and bars and pawns shops built on either side of the flattest sun-greyed road I’d ever seen. That’s where the local boys with hair and the Marines mingled.
I’d heard that grunts would drag local boys away, bring them blindfolded to the woods nearest the strip. They’d pin their shoulders against the forest floor until those boys were still and screamed like girls, slapping and spitting and biting. They’d shave them right down to cue balls. Not even the peach fuzz on their arms stayed. I imagined all that soft hair on the ground. Birds would gather and weave it into nests. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know: no matter how pridefully a jarhead grooms his buzz cut, the ones I knew all want thick heads of hair. They wanted their hometown lives back.
In the bedroom I shared with Cara at Grandma’s house, we’d papered the walls with posters from Hit Parade and Metal Edge, images of men with long hair who wore skimpy tank tops and leather pants. I’d taped so many of them up, the eggshell white paint was hidden. I liked my music fast, with guitar solos, and a certain amount of pleading.
Our bedroom was one flight of stairs up from the kitchen; it was our real dad’s old room, the only place big enough in Grandma’s house to sleep us both. The passageway up to the room was dark. One door opened at the bottom of the stairway; one door opened at the top. With both doors closed, it was nearly pitch black inside. That was my alone place at Gram’s. I prayed there. The same prayers I’d said since I was old enough to kneel echoed around me in the dark. I barely believed, but I prayed anyway. I was still superstitious then. So I blessed every there and gone member of my family, even both dads. I asked God as my father to keep us safe.
“I’m chewing the holy ghost,” I whispered once to Mom at church, back at Lejeune. I turned the last bits of my communion wafer around in my mouth, sucking bits from my teeth with my tongue.
“It’s called the holy host,” Mom whispered back with a tinge of mortification. “Let it dissolve.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked. “When I’m a priest, I’ll call it whatever I want.”
“We’re Catholic, honey.” We’d just gotten to the point in the mass when we greeted our neighbors with handshakes and a blessing.
“So?” I ran my hands down the smock of the Polly Flinders white and purple flowered dress that Grandma had sent in the mail. Cara’s dress was just like mine.
“No girls allowed at the altar.” Cara shot me the Look. Disbelieving eyes, brows arched in humiliation. Her know-better face. She gave it to me when I said something that reflected poorly on us.
“Pleased to meet you.” I smiled at the family behind us. “Pleased to meet you.” I embraced a girl younger than me in the pew in front of us, her hair soft against my arms. “Pleased to meet you.” I hugged Cara and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
“It is peace be with you, stupid.”
“That’s what I said.” We hugged chest-to-chest.
At thirteen, I still kept time with God. I imagined my words as a golden thread starting at my lips. It rose right up through our roof and touched God’s lips. We communed, mouth-to-mouth. I imagined God tasting my thread, his hands open in his lap. Cara sat in the dark stairway after school sometimes too, on the middle step. She hunched against the wall, the polished wood banister pressed against her neck.
A few years ago I wrote this story. In that version I said that I walked into that hall and caught Cara writing poetry in a notebook.
But that’s not what happened.
Poetry was a lie.
Really, when I’d opened our father’s old bedroom door on my sister, she sat alone with a sliver of glass from a broken bottle in her fist, marking her own arm with it. I caught her mid-cut, eyes closed in relief. One of the most painful moments of my life. “I’m sorry,” I told her, and put my hand against her blood, covering the wound.
“Knock first,” Cara said quietly, then “please.”
With Bud on the line, I stretched the phone as far as it would go, until the lead was overextended and straight, like a rubber band in a slingshot. The bathroom door crimped the line, slicing the yellow plastic casing of the cord. It opened like a gash; braided wire, tangled and live. I sat on the floor and crossed my legs, like a child during story time. I fit perfectly inside of the narrow place between the sink and the tub. The corners of my mouth hurt. I smiled that hard.
“The ghost had a warning.”
“What?” I whispered.
“If we don’t have sex soon, you’ll die. That’s what the ghost said.” His hard, nervous exhale made a static whoosh in my ear.
“But, I’m not ready to die. I haven’t even started high school.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man.”
“I’m not ready for eighth grade to be it.” I pulled the phone away from my mouth, shouting at it like a person. “Eighth grade sucks balls.”
“You’ll live,” he said. “If I see you on Saturday.”
Cara’s older boyfriend John drove me to Bud. Cara sat in the front passenger’s seat. I rode in back, sat on the middle hump. I tucked the safety belt behind my shoulder. The lap belt pulled over my hips. I pushed myself up front between Cara and John, my natural interfering place. My chin settled on the armrest, teeth clacking when the car took a bump. Those two had so little to talk about. John was nineteen and had never finished high school. Cara carried so many books in her purse it was impossible to zip it closed.
“Turn left,” I told him.
John pulled the signal down. It clicked out of time with the flashing blinker light. “No good piece of shit.” He yelled at the car, banging his fist on the dashboard like a drummer, because that’s what he most wanted to be, besides important. John knocked it so hard the heat stopped blowing warm through the vents.
Cara turned back to look at me, rolling her eyes.
“I’m going to have sex with Bud.” I yelled over the blasting music.
“What do you even know about it?” John turned the radio’s dial down. He gave Cara a sideways glance, stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, moving it in consideration. Cara wasn’t putting out.
Single story brick houses rowed Bud’s street, post-war cookie cutter homes. Some had additions built on: family rooms where garages had been. Bud stood in his driveway, eyes to the ground, as if his head was too heavy for his neck. Cold fogged his breath. It punctuated his words with white steam. His hello was smoke. I waved my hello wildly from the backseat, excited as family greeting the deployed on a runway. Bud smiled, which he rarely did. He opened the car’s door. I’d arrived at the moment of my life of the flesh.
Soon, we laid side by side in the circle of an oil stain. The cracked, crumbling concrete floor of Bud’s garage dug into our bare backs. Dusty tools hooked to the walls. Clear-headed tacks held posters of women with large, uncovered silicon breasts in place around the room. They licked their lips, posed in ecstasy over cherry-hooded sports cars. The women’s wide lipsticked smiles were as disappointed as they were easy. A space heater buzzed and tapped beside us on the floor. It fought the chill. I’d worn a pink sweater with tiny blue leaves and a wide-cut neck. Mom bought it on sale at Filene’s. Mom’s Filene’s shirt crumpled on the floor beside my jeans. Bud reclined on the freezing floor.
“Why the long face?” he asked me.
I placed my palm on his cheek and sighed. Pillow talk. “I miss the summer.” I crossed my arms over my bare breasts.
“I don’t know.” I closed my eyes on Bud. I lowered my mouth, searched for his lips in the dark. His breath tasted like Menthol and chewing gum. His tongue nervously probed mine. Nails and screws and sawdust littered the floor. Ripped up blueprints and hardware receipts too, all mixed up with our clothes.
“My dad works here.” Bud flicked a nail across the floor until it was nothing more than a far off ping. Beneath his clothes he was less than I’d imagined, thinner, and more ashen. He was meek the way a wet animal is, humbled and slight. He flashed a rare smile of shining teeth. “This should help.” He picked me up with both arms, repositioned me onto my knees. It was soft on top of his shirt.
I pretended to be calm, though I knew thirteen was young. Bud played a cassette tape on a loop. The boom box speakers hissed one seductively cheesy rock anthem after another.
I brought Bud’s hands down from my breasts to my waist, asking for more time.
After we finished, I rolled onto my back. I cried like the girl I was.
“Oh, darling.” Bud whisper sang. He didn’t know the words to the song on the boom box. Darling was in the repeated verse. He mumbled the lyrics. I knew every word. The singer of that song wanted his woman back at home. She’s never coming back, I thought. Not for such an awful song.
“Do you think we’ll win the war?” I asked, rolling away from him.
“We’d better.” He stroked my chin the way I stroked our kitten’s chin. “I turn eighteen next week.”
Chimes sounded in the chorus, the same key as the wind chimes that blew on Grandma’s front porch. The high-hat on the drum crackled, like hard-soled shoes on broken glass.
Christa Parravani‘s Her: A Memoir was a Wall Street Journal, Salon, and Library Journal best book of 2013. Parravani’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Marie Claire, Daily Beast, The Guardian, and Catapult, among other places. She is assistant professor of creative writing at West Virginia University.