April 09, 2011
*From the story “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go.”
Georgie knew before he left that Lanae would be fucking Kenny by the time he got back to Virginia. At least she’d been up front about it, not like all those other husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends, shined up and cheesing for the five o clock news on the day their lovers shipped out, and then jumping into bed with each other before the plane landed. When he’d told Lanae about his orders, she’d just lifted an eyebrow, shook her head, and said “I told you not to join the goddamn army.” Before he left for basic training, she’d stopped seeing him, stopped taking his calls even, said “I’m not waiting for you to come home dead, and I’m damn sure not having Esther upset when you get killed.”
That was how he knew she loved him at least a little bit; she’d brought the kid into it. Lanae wasn’t like some single mothers, always throwing their kid up in people’s faces. She was fiercely protective of Esther, kept her apart from everything, even him, and they’d been in each other’s lives so long that he didn’t believe for a second that she was really through with him this time. Still, he missed her when everyone else was getting loved visibly and he was standing there with no one to say goodbye to. Even her love was strategic, goddamn her, and he felt more violently toward the men he imagined touching her in his absence than toward the imaginary enemy they’d been war-gaming against. On the plane he had stared out of the window at more water than he’d ever seen at once, and thought of the look on her face when he said goodbye.
She had come to his going away party like it was nothing, showed up in skintight jeans and that cheap but sweet-smelling baby powder perfume and spent a good twenty minutes exchanging pleasantries with his mother before she even said hello to him. She’d brought a cake that she’d picked up from the bakery at the second restaurant she worked at, told one of the church ladies she was thinking of starting her own cake business. Really? he thought, before she winked at him and put a silver fingernail to her lips. Lanae could cook a little, but the only time he remembered her trying to bake she’d burnt a cake she’d made from boxed mix and then tried to cover it up with pink frosting. Esther wouldn’t touch the thing, and he’d run out and gotten a Minnie Mouse Ice Cream cake from the grocery store. He’d found himself silently listing these non-secrets, the things about Lanae he was certain of: she couldn’t bake, there was a thin but awful scar running down the back of her right calve, her eyes were amber in the right light.
They’d grown up down the street from each other. He could not remember a time before they were friends, but she’d had enough time to get married and divorced and produce a little girl before he thought to kiss her for the first time, only a few months before he’d gotten his orders. In fairness, she was not exactly beautiful; it had taken some time for him to see past that. Her face was pleasant but plain, her features so simple that if she were a cartoon she’d seem deliberately underdrawn. She was not big, exactly, but pillowy, like if you pressed your hand into her it would keep sinking and sinking because there was nothing solid to her. It bothered him to think of Kenny putting his hand on her that way, Kenny who’d once assigned numbers to all the waitresses at Ruby Tuesdays based on the quality of their asses, Kenny who’d probably never be gentle enough to notice what her body did while it was his.
It wasn’t Lanae who met him at the airport when he landed back where he’d started. It was his mother, looking small in the crowd of people waiting for arrivals. Some of them were bored, leaning up against the wall like they were in line for a restaurant table, others peered around the gate like paparazzi waiting for the right shot to happen. His mother was up in front, squinting at him like she wasn’t sure he was real. She was in her nurse’s uniform, and it made her look a little ominous. When he came through security she ran up to hug him so he couldn’t breathe. “Baby,” she said, then asked how the connecting flight had been, and then talked about everything but what mattered. Perhaps after all of his letters home she was used to unanswered questions, because she didn’t ask any, not about the war, not about his health, not about the conditions of his honorable discharge or what he intended to do upon his return to civilian society.
She was all weather and light gossip through the parking lot. “The Cherry Blossoms are beautiful this year,” she was saying as they rode down the Dulles Toll Road, and if it had been Lanae saying something like that he would have said Cherry Blossoms? Are you fucking kidding me? but because it was his mother things kept up like that all the way around 395 and back to Alexandria. It was still too early in the morning for real rush hour traffic, and they made it in twenty minutes. The house was as he’d remembered it, old, the bright robin’s egg blue of the paint cheerful in a painfully false way, like a woman wearing red lipstick and layers of foundation caked over wrinkles. Inside, the surfaces were all coated with a thin layer of dust, and it made him feel guilty his mother had to do all of this housework herself, even though when he was home he’d almost never cleaned anything.
He’d barely put his bags down when she was off to work, still not able to take the whole day off. She left with promises of dinner later. In her absence it struck him that it had been a long time since he’d heard silence. In the desert there was always noise. When it was not the radio, or people talking, or shouting, or shouting at him, it was the dull purr of machinery providing a constant background soundtrack, or the rhythmic pulse of sniper fire. Now it was a weekday in the suburbs and the lack of human presence made him anxious. He turned the tv on and off four times, flipping through talk shows and soap operas and thinking this was something like what had happened to him: someone had changed the channel on his life. The abruptness of the transition overrode the need for social protocol, so without calling first he got into the old Buick and drove to Lanae’s, the feel of the leather steering wheel strange beneath his hands. The brakes screeched every time he stepped on them, and he realized he should have asked his mother how the car was running before taking it anywhere, but the problem seemed appropriate—he had started this motion, and the best thing to do was not to stop it.
Kenny’s car outside of Lanae’s duplex did not surprise him, nor did it deter him. He parked in one of the visitor spaces and walked up to ring the bell.
“Son of a bitch! What’s good?” Kenny asked when he answered the door, as if Georgie had been gone for a year on a beer run.
“I’m back,” he said, unnecessarily. “How you been man?”
Kenny looked like he’d been Kenny. He’d always been a big guy, but he was getting soft around the middle. His hair was freshly cut in a fade, and he was already in uniform, wearing a shiny gold nametag that said Kenneth, and beneath that, Manager, which had not been true when Georgie left. Georgie could smell the apartment through the door, Lanae’s perfume and floral air freshener not masking that something had been cooked with grease that morning.
“Not, bad,” he said. “I’ve been holding it down over here while you been holding it down over there. Glad you came back in one piece.”
Kenny gave him a one armed hug, and for a minute Georgie felt like an asshole for wanting to say holding it down? you’ve been serving people KFC.
“Look man, I was on my way to work, but we’ll catch up later, alright?” Kenny said, moving out of the doorway to reveal Lanae standing there, still in the t-shirt she’d slept in. Her hair was pulled back in a headscarf, and it made her eyes look huge. Kenny was out the door with a nod and a shoulder clasp, not so much as a backwards glance at Lanae standing there. The casual way he left them alone together bothered Georgie. He wasn’t sure if Kenny didn’t consider him a threat or simply didn’t care what Lanae did; either way he was annoyed.
“Hey,” said Lanae, her voice soft, and he realized he hadn’t thought this visit through any further than that.