When I was 14, I lost my virginity to David Flower, the future congressman.
My parents had moved us, the summer before, from Cambridge to West Virginia. They were junior co-hires in public health at WVU, but they wanted to live way out in the country, in a hamlet named Glory, to be closer to their research: obesity and its correlation with diabetes, cancer rates, and other misery. Of course, Glory was also, as the locals said, real beautiful.
That fall, I started at Glory Unified High. There he was in homeroom. “Welcome, Dave,” the teacher said, and David Flower corrected him. The other boys wore camo jackets, lewd novelty T-shirts, their crimson and gold football jerseys. David had only khakis and an oxford, tucked tightly in. Sometimes he came in the uniform of the Royal Rangers, a Christian scouting organization. By the end of that October, we were going steady. Lonely finds lonely.
The next several months were all handholding, kissing with the barest flicker of tongue, and David risking quick touches of my breasts or butt like he was going for a cactus. I never went to Glory Baptist with him, though I did twice see the inside of his house. The first time, his mom was passed out on the couch. The second, I witnessed his dad hurl a softball trophy at her. I asked my parents if we should call the cops. My dad frowned and said, well, there was more to an education than AP scores.
After David got his learner’s, we drove to the Monongahela River in his father’s pickup, which had a crunched front bumper from a crash with a parked car. Beneath a black willow, in a spot selected for its beauty and seclusion, David laid a blanket out. “It’s okay,” he said, “because I know we’ll always be together.” After, I found that I hadn’t bled. I felt flush all over, like when I sat close to a campfire. In a husky voice, David told me he loved me. Then he got up, ran to the river, and, with a whoop, launched himself into the water.
I didn’t have to break up with David. I just made new friends. While he stayed after school to study or attended prayer meetings, I shot off in smoke-filled cars to smoke-filled parties. Junior year, I got my septum pierced, and he received a medal for his Ranger achievements.
One humid April evening, I was sitting on my porch watching lightning bugs. David Flower came out of the muggy dark with his ash blond bangs plastered to his forehead. “Hey,” he said in a strangled voice, “I was just walking by.” For an odd, stray moment, I was sure he was going to ask me to marry him. But he only wanted to talk to my parents, about Yale, where they’d done their PhDs. He’d been accepted to WVU. Or he could go into the armed forces, see what the GI Bill would pay for after. My dad, who wouldn’t even watch war movies, told David to go into the Navy—better food, less chance of getting killed—and that, in five years, he’d write him a letter of recommendation. My parents always liked David Flower. Or maybe they were amused by him.
My friends threw a graduation party, and I was surprised to see David there, wearing a faded orange polo and drinking a beer, wincing with every sip. “I can hardly believe it now,” I told him, in reference to our year of dating. “Crazy!” he answered, wincing again. In that basement, David and I had sex for the second time. I’d been with six boys and one girl since, but I played with his hair and thought of that afternoon by the Monongahela. “Did you get a merit badge for losing it?” I teased him. “Or did they take one away?”
Twelve years later, I was living in New York, running a fledgling green architecture firm with two guys I knew from Columbia. I’d been engaged to their best friend, a Marxist architectural futurist. After three years, I’d moved out, took the first “jr 1BR prtl Hudson vu” I saw. My partners stopped socializing with me, but I wouldn’t abandon the firm. CommonsCollective had a mission. I wanted to be on the crest of the wave.
We’d recently put up a website. That was how David found my address. “Remember me?!” read the entirety of his initial email. An odd blip in a hectic day. The year after I graduated, my parents had left WVU for Stanford. Everything about Glory felt hazy now, like a dream or a period of illness. I was scrambling to put together a competition entry but dashed off a reply: “Of course! Where are you now? Hope yr well.”
David wrote right back, at length. He’d gone to Annapolis—never made it to Yale—and now served on a Los Angeles–class submarine at the rank of lieutenant commander. He’d been all over the world. Or all under it! His message was all exclamation points and question marks. “I believe you must be doing very well! in New York City!?!” It turned out he was married—they’d met at church—with two boys. Twins! He’d just taken them to their first Royal Rangers Camporama!
Where was all of this going? I wondered, scrolling to the bottom.
“Hey, Liv!” No one had called me that in years. “Ever see the inside of a sub?!”
Two months later, I rented a car, drove up to New London, Connecticut. As I pulled into the base’s visitor lot, a man climbed out of an old pickup. He was fit and tanned, taller than I remembered. His ash blond hair was buzzed to the scalp. I gave him a quick hug.
“Meat pie?” David reached into the truck, offered me a pastry in waxed paper. “Great Greek diner down the road. I was stationed on Crete a while back.”
He shook his head, chuckled. “You always were setting the trends!”
He nibbled the meat pie and said, “It’s great seeing you, Liv. Funny saying your name, hearing your voice, after all these darn years. Nothing whips you harder than time, right? Yes, ma’am, I believe that’s right!”
“Let’s go see the sub,” I said.
David locked up the truck. Same model as his father’s, I commented. “This is dad’s truck! Brought it up from Glory after the old man died of lung cancer, restored it part by part—gotta love a vintage vehicle!” I thought that an early-’90s Ford wasn’t exactly vintage but said only, “Sorry about your dad.”
At the entrance to the base, a sign read, “Submarine Capital of the World.” It was in the shape of a submarine. A couple of security guys patted me down with an air of intense gravity, as if holding their sphincters tightly.
We walked up a long drive flanked by rosebushes, cannons, white bungalows, and ugly warehouses. Then, the docks came into view, the Thames River inlet a deep, flat indigo. There were two submarines, grim and sleek with mottled dark gray and black panels. David led us to the sub on the farthest dock. After we crossed a gangway, a hatch swung up, and the top half of a sailor appeared, wearing a Navy cap and blue digital camouflage. “Ma’am, welcome to the U.S.S. San Juan.” I wondered why, under the sea, down in the dark, encased in a thick steel tube, it was necessary to wear camouflage. But I just said, “Thank you,” and accepted a hand down.
The cap, ducking through the bulkheads, hustled us along a tight corridor and into the command room. He barked out, “Civilian onboard!” Four other sailors pulled black fabric scrims over the screens they’d been scrutinizing. In the fluorescent light, they were moon-faced, pubescent—thin mustaches and steel-frame glasses. “Ma’am,” they said in turn. “Ma’am.” “Ma’am.” “Welcome, Ma’am.”
“At ease,” David Flower said, though they already appeared to be.
“Lieutenant,” they said. “Lieutenant.” “Lieutenant.” “Lieutenant.”
David pointed out the piloting station, the sonar station, fire control, the NAV Star, the type 2 periscope, the type 18 periscope … As men often do, he was trying to charm and bewilder me with expertise. But the cap kept hustling us along. The crew mess: steel picnic tables, faux-wood paneling. The galley: every surface scrubbed to an operating-theater shine. The crew bunks: tiny and meticulously made.
“Jesus,” I said, “you sleep in these how long?”
David sent a little twinkle toward the cap, but the other man just stood with his arms behind his back. David barely had time to comment on the engines, the twin carbon dioxide scrubbers—“Mary-Kate and Ashley”—or the huge, cauldron-shaped nuclear reactor. In the torpedo room, the torpedoes were painted an oddly merry green.
We passed into a chamber where eight pairs of wide, tall cylinders stretched from the floor through the ceiling. “Tridents! The real peacekeepers. For ending the world—or making sure it stays in line! Go ahead,” David Flower said. “You can touch it.”
He gave me his shy smile again, then swung back and palmed the missile hard. “Safe as Sunday school!” A low, hollow roar rung up through my feet. I hesitated, reached out.
Thirty minutes later, I was straddling David Flower while he thrust awkwardly inside me. We were in the passenger seat of the truck, parked in a lonely clearing near the Thames. I wriggled him deeper inside me; he came with a gasp. I hurried up and got there, too. We extricated ourselves. I stepped out onto the grassy bank, rearranging my bra and black tee. “That was unexpected,” David said, buckling up as he joined me.
“Oh? So, you got in touch, invited me up here, just to try the meat pie?”
“And you came to see the sub?” he said, wincing. Under his khaki shorts, he was already coming back up to half-mast.
“Looks like the San Juan is readying to fire again.”
This kind of talk wasn’t me, but I couldn’t help making David squirm, for old time’s sake. He laced up his bright white running shoes, tried to put his arm around me. I shrugged him off. “It’s okay. You don’t have to ask me to the school dance now.”
David hacked out a laugh. “Liv,” he said, “you’re the only one I know like you.”
For a few fugitive moments, I was back on that bend of the Monongahela, its sluggish current glinting under the lacy black willows. I remembered that I’d worn a royal blue bikini under a red sundress, that we’d swum for hours, the water warm and silty, David’s ash blond hair shining in the hazy sun.
On the drive back, he told me about his marriage: the months at sea had taken their toll. He and Bonnie Rae had prayed and prayed, but they were just looking out for the kids now. (I could see him scanning the floorboards, in case he’d left a bit of condom wrapper down there.) He was coming ashore, going on reserve duty, maybe starting up a defense contractor consultancy. Citizens didn’t comprehend how much was being done, in secret, in their names. Americans were uncomfortable that we were conquerors—Hollywood, Wall Street, Apple computers—that our military, the “Silent Service” in particular, was the only thing truly holding Pax Americana together. As we pulled into the base, I wondered if this speech, rather than the quick screw, was the reason David had asked me to visit.
“There’s folks,” he said, “been submerged. Running silent. But they’re rising. You’ll see them rising.” I heard that familiar, strangled voice, so certain, so searching.
“Hey”—I let out a jangly laugh—“our physics teacher, what was his name?”
“Who, Mr. Rendell?”
“Mr. Rendell! Remember he shot that baking soda rocket through the ceiling?”
“And he used to wear his adult Space Camp uniform to school!”
We sat there in David’s father’s pickup, laughing, swapping memories I hadn’t even realized I’d forgotten. “It is morally reprehensible to romanticize the past,” my ex used to say. But, well, it’d been a shitty year, and maybe it wasn’t just a quick screw that had brought me here either.
Lieutenant Commander David Flower’s first campaign email was poorly designed. A posed photo of David, Bonnie Rae, and the twins. Red, white, and blue letters spelling out, “Family values and dedicated service you can trust.” Blocks of text on his humble upbringing in “coal country,” his love of country, love in the Lord, and Naval commendations, all capped by a paean to staying the course overseas, and underseas.
It’d been eight months. I’d guessed he’d felt too guilty to be in touch. Apparently, he hadn’t gone on reserve just to spend more time with the boys. And the consultancy was on ice, too. “Somehow, I’m not surprised,” I wrote him. “Congrats and, despite my better principles, good luck.”
I hesitated, then added that I’d be in Connecticut again, to do a quote on an “eco-lux” B&B. Not exactly the People + Planet > Profit ethos CommonsCollective sought to chart, but it’d pay the overheads for another month. Geoff and Stefan, my partners, said I had a knack for client outreach. More likely, their pride wouldn’t let them grovel for the job. A week later, David emailed back, reluctantly it seemed, to suggest we meet for lunch.
Instead, we checked into a motel. “Rush hour on I-95,” David said, half-panicked, as I undid his belt. “I need to be away by four.”
His veneer of resistance, the notion that I was tempting him to lust—I grabbed him and said, “Maybe you aren’t bad at this, for someone with hardly any practice.”
“Bonnie and I aren’t monks. Or, wait, nuns. Or, Lord, I don’t—”
I pushed him, hard, and he fell back on the bed. I tugged his khakis down and got on top. “How’s fundraising?” I said between sharp breaths.
“Phone calls,” David huffed. “Phone calls, phone calls.”
“They ponying up?”
“They’re all with Whidbey. The incumbent. His family owns. An island.”
I rolled off and told him to suck my clit. He went about it more accurately than expected. He made love like a troop of scouts fixing a busted dam: earnestly, and with rising alarm. “Maybe go back to Glory, run from there,” I said. “Local boy makes good.”
“Right. They’ll bring out. The fatted calf.”
The few men I’d dated since my ex had all been sleek and hairless, obsessed with whittling their bodies with esoteric powders. David had solidity, beefiness. He looked up at me, fished a pubic curl from his mouth. “Is there anyone in your life, Liv?”
Three years spent trying to share, not to mention decipher, my ex’s vision for “new modalities of co-dwelling in the post-Anthropocene floodscape”—it’d been thrilling, and exhausting. Architecture: in which every man fancies himself an engineer of the soul and treats every woman, even his fiancée, like an intern.
“Does it matter? You’re just here because you’re bored of blondie back home.”
“Bonnie Rae is a woman of God. But she’s also a good mother.”
Women like her—practically an advertisement for some Christian dating website—hovered like a photo negative over almost every interaction I had with men. Still, why the hell did I find myself annoyed with her?
“I didn’t come to talk about your family. Tell me you want to fuck me already.”
“Oh, I really want to fuck you, baby,” he said with singsong irony.
I rolled my eyes, grabbed him again. “Say you’ll fuck me so hard I’ll scream.”
“You’re going to be screaming in a second.”
“Make it a little longer than that. And say ‘fuck,’ goddamn you.”
“I’ll fuck you so long”—he gritted his teeth—“I’ll fuck your fucking eyes out.”
I sputtered with laughter, now completely inflamed. There was still something virginal about David Flower, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to preserve or defile it.
“I’ll fuck you so hard they’ll call the cops.”
“All right,” I said, “get to it then.”
Lieutenant Commander David Flower lost his primary by 20 points. In an email to his supporters, he lamented that the Silent Service—so essential to our great nation’s security, but ultra-sensitive—was hard to make a calling card. We needed to acknowledge the sacrifices of our servicemen and women, the months and years at sea. Also, he’d failed to make inroads with Whidbey’s bloc of middle-aged Catholic professionals.
David emailed me personally to say that the country was broken, nothing made sense anymore, no one ever thought about everything being done behind the scenes, they just kept on spending and spending, enjoying the spoils without owning up to the conquests, maybe it would take another 9/11, or worse, to make them realize the real realities. I thought of my ex, who’d ranted longest whenever he had a paper rejected. You almost felt sorry for men: the older they got, the more their principled outrage and thwarted ambition grew indistinguishable.
Over that year, David and I met nine more times, at different motels and hotels. When I introduced anal and toys and several other things I considered pedestrian, David Flower’s eyes shone like he was dangling his mortal soul over the flame. After, we’d talk about Glory. The switchback gravel roads, the bleached-out shacks, the hills thick with pitch pine and scarlet oak, all buzzing with insect life, the Milky Way spilled across the dark night—David could make it all come swimming back. Sure, there’d been the mines, the stringy burnouts who’d share their dope then spew hate, David’s parents screaming so loudly that you heard them half a mile away. But … that river running warm and silty and slow, the lacy shadows of the willows, David’s hair glowing in the sun.
Once, after a breathless session, he rolled over, let out a sigh like an air mattress collapsing. I thought he was about to rue his decision, or non-decision, to stick it out with Bonnie Rae. They’d gone to counseling, with a minister. “You got past the first sin,” I said. “Don’t tally up all the rest.”
“I was thinking on all those college kids.”
Another unimaginable massacre already receding into the daily horror. “Well, if your people didn’t let everyone carry a fucking artillery.”
“How could God let that happen?” David’s eyes burned with hurt and ardor.
“Come on,” I said. “Don’t ruin the mood.”
“He spoke to me once.”
“Oh, fuck me …”
“I was 13. I hadn’t even met you. At Camporama ’93, He came right out of the fire, sat down beside me, told me to help working folks all over the country. Help put food on their table and protect their homes and to always, always keep families together.”
“As he goes truly messianic,” I said, “my horniness drains away.”
“If I was there, I could’ve done something.”
“Right, arm the professors so we can have a real bloodbath.”
David took my hand, squeezed. “Hey, how are your folks?”
“Tenured,” I said. “Zero worries. Not packing heat, yet.”
“We keep asking Mom to come live with us. But, honestly, I—”
“You’re allowed to hate them. You don’t owe your fucking parents a goddamn thing.” But I was talking to a man still driving his dad’s pickup.
David reached up, touched my face. “You know where I come from, Liv. There’s no one else who does. Maybe that’s why I feel the way I do.”
He kissed me on the lips, pulled back, held me with those burning eyes. And then, goddamn him, he told me he loved me.
That year, I found myself in countless meetings, massaging planning commissions and floppy-haired CEOs, two of whom wanted to meet in their homes, in case I might fuck them or give free decorating advice. Still, CommonsCollective was finally breaking even. It helped that everything was
exploding. Whenever I went up to Connecticut, the few remaining mills and sagging saltboxes were like rotten teeth in a big money smile.
But I’d been sleeping terribly. I was back in the San Juan, down in the groaning dark, rivets popping out of bulkheads, David’s face buried in the periscope, water hammering in, columns of smoke and fire from the Hudson, Tridents roaring into the night, searing phosphor white—the sun flashed across my prtl vu of the river, my heart thunked back down. “Commander-in-Chief’s got his finger on the button,” David said once. “We’re what’s on the other end.”
One afternoon, I took a lunch with the head of a philanthropic group, a woman in her late 50s with the taut, shiny skin of a dolphin. We chatted about their flagship project—solar-pumped latrines in sub-Saharan Africa—and ordered off a menu that would’ve paid for a hundred of them. Halfway through my pitch, the Dolphin paused in her langostino risotto: “Oh, don’t fret. You had it when you walked in.” Yes! I shouted to myself. Yes! This gig would make us. Geoff and Stefan would have to suck it. Then the woman laid a waxy hand on my wrist. “You know, Olivia, you’re the perfect face for your firm.” When I stepped outside, I was reeling.
David and I met two days later, at a Quality Inn overlooking I-95 that made me feel cheap and lonely. He slid in, not fully hard, and I nearly said forget it, forget all of this.
Instead, I told him, “Say, ‘You’re such a good face.’ ”
“You’ve got a great face, Liv. A beautiful face.”
“No, ‘You are such a good face.’”
“Really,” he said, “you’re beautiful. I want to fuck your—”
“No, not that. And don’t call me Liv.”
“But I never used to—”
“Say, We don’t care who you are. What the fuck you think. We just care about your face and your smile, your tits and ass, and not even another woman will take you seriously. Fuck! You’re thinking it, so just say it! Jesus, you’ll say anything to get laid!”
David’s forehead beaded sweat, plastering down his hair. “Liv, I don’t know what you’re … I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you.”
“Oh, fuck,” I said, “just shut up.” Then I sobbed and rambled: You think you’ll be fine, you’re doing the right, necessary thing by leaving, then you wake up three years later, half the people you loved still aren’t speaking to you, and all the green-fair-upcycled-shared-sustainable everything you killed yourself for is now just empty slang batted around every boardroom in the country. I wanted to disappear, I told David. I just wanted gone.
He held me until I ran out of breath, murmured in my ear: I was brilliant, I worked so hard, I deserved to be rewarded, I deserved everything. We lay in each other’s arms under those ultra-bleached sheets, and for a moment, wrung out, I fell asleep—next to the Thames, the Monongahela, the Hudson, the water flat indigo, muddy brown silt, a sheet of burning white light—and then David was standing over me, buttoning up his khakis. “Rush hour, I’ve got to scoot. Liv, I love you, I love you.” And I heard myself, a thousand feet below the surface, saying it back.
Solar toilets and the Dolphin got us through the crash, barely. We’d grown to 20—I’d even had my own intern—and now we were three again, doing our own renders, frantically bidding on every executive suite and Westchester remodel in sight. A decade ago, I’d have toasted the market melting down. (I’m sure my ex popped a bottle of Prosecco.) Now, I just felt my career staggering down an alley to lay down and die.
That February, a flier arrived at my work, glossy card at once slick and crude: “Lieutenant Commander David Flower, Fire Back for Your House of Representatives” on a black background with other words seen through a periscope’s sights—Taxes! Wall Street! Socialism! Evictions!—all about to be blown to bits. The nautical, or sub-nautical, theme continued for weeks. Once, Stefan plucked a flier from our inbox like it was a soiled napkin, then saw my name on the label. “Flirting with the enemy?”
“Mailing lists,” I mumbled, “you know …”
I should’ve asked David to stop the fliers, but I almost admired his doggedness. And Stefan’s and Geoff’s heads exploded every time another came in. On their flipsides, there was always some rant on the dark forces assailing the American dream, but I was too exhausted to read them. Our man had been in the White House less than six months, and already the bloated old men were calling for “insurrection.”
My one release came in those motels and hotels. Since coming ashore, David had gotten doughy around the middle; the way he settled into the mattress, and I settled into him, felt oddly comfortable. He was always on the road, campaigning, eating crap, falling behind, despite his assault on Francis Huntington Whidbey—now referred to by his full name—a Wall Street errand boy, meeting in private with the president, in the pocket of every bank he’d bailed out.
“You’re anti-spending? You were in the goddamn military.”
“I just say what they tell me,” David murmured into the pillow.
“What who tells you?”
“I had to remortgage the house. I’m signing the boys’ future away if I don’t win. No way you can’t take their money.”
Still, I wouldn’t let him play victim. “Christ, you’ll be putting Obama in your crosshairs next.”
“That tested well. But we didn’t want any calls from the Secret Service. They want me to change my name. Flower is ‘too soft’ for a soldier.”
“Change it to what? Colonel Kilgore? Major Disaster?”
For a moment, I thought I’d hurt him. Then he cracked a smile. “Dick Armey.”
I half laughed at that.
“Actually,” David said. “I’ve met Dick. I like him.”
David’s platform, idiotic as it was—how could Obama be thick with Larry Summers and a Socialist?—was everywhere. David’s new handlers might be hideous mutants, but they weren’t dumb. No way our man would get reelected—if he didn’t get shot first—just too many homes and dreams gone underwater. But, in the end, I was afraid to protest harder, afraid, despite my better principles, of losing David. He was still insisting we meet at different hotels each time. Bonnie Rae had a PI on his tail, he said, to prove him guilty, so she could exit the marriage untarnished, a good, Christian divorce.
I’d crawl out of bed to shower; David brushed his teeth; we’d stand before the misted mirror, and I’d see myself in her place, run ragged by the twins, packed lunches, permission slips, oil changes … But, then, I was 38. What did I have to show for it? An apartment I’d never own, a career that kept me verging on a breakdown, a chunk of cultural capital that impressed others but no longer meant much of anything to me.
That fall, I saw David on cable news. The pundits were saying his virulent TV spots had taken their toll on Whidbey. Footage of one of David’s rallies showed him thumping a podium—“Connecticut, you built it, they took it!”—as a roomful of white folks nodded and clenched their jaws. Once, I was downtown for a meeting and wandered through Zuccotti Park, to see the camp. It smelled of wet socks and curry. On a makeshift stage, various impassioned people in rain gear were delivering speeches. The whole time, some homeless guy was cavorting in front of them, dancing and leering. The constipated-looking citizens at David’s rallies would’ve had him hauled out in a heartbeat.
It seemed David was making headway; he actually had a chance of winning. But when Whidbey prevailed, the news only made wry puns—no one really cared about a regional primary, only the larger “insurgency”—Lieutenant Commander David Flower, torpedoed and sunk. And there was a photo of him I hadn’t seen before. He was smiling so desperately, he looked like he was being choked by his own necktie.
The sex mellowed, grew tangential. Sometimes we’d just lie in bed, and I’d play with David’s hair, which, though thinning, had somehow stayed blond. I bitched about work, and David rued his debts. He’d be lucky if he kept the house, if the boys could go off to college, if they had a change of church clothes that year. “My whole life I’ve been losing,” he’d say. “My whole life they’ve been mocking me. But He took the scourging, endured it for us all.” David sighed at the motel ceiling. “Give me strength to endure.”
I felt worn to threads, too. My 40th was marked by a party with Geoff, Stefan, and clients, including the Dolphin. My social circle had broadened, or slumped, to include people who defended stop and frisk and thought the cops had been right to turn their backs on the mayor. I only murmured vague agreement; we got most of our work from these people.
A week after my birthday, David gave me his graduation yearbook. I’d thrown mine out years ago. There I was, clunky and miserable in Docs, hair bleached and fried the same as all the friends I’d never spoken to since. More than ever, I felt time as a stream, swifter each passing day. How long had I been swimming against it? Maybe now I was content to let it carry me backwards, if only I could grasp a few lost things.
I was still sleeping horribly, my dreams of atomic fire routine yet terrifying. I fantasized about leaving the city, dropping my practice, going right to seed. Each time we concluded, David dropped me at the Metro North, scrupulous to arrive just before the train came and never linger. As my train, all of the trains, all of the honking and buzzing cars and trucks funneled into the city, I remembered the method my mom had taught me to catch flies, a cone of paper poked into a bottle of vinegar, and all of the flies just clamoring to get as far down that bottle as they could.
One night in the Village, on my way to a dinner, I passed the New School, where some event was kicking off, a crowd gathering. I was pushing my way through, colossally annoyed, when I heard a voice. “Hardly recognized you.”
I was in the kind of clothes I wore to meet our clients, Balenciaga on my shoulder. My ex was in his old black hoodie, fingerless gloves, and what appeared to be a sarong.
“Here for the lecture?” he went on, when I could summon no words.
“No, why, who’s speaking? You?”
My ex scoffed. “We’re here for the demonstration.” He mentioned the name of some idiot far-right “provocateur.”
“That guy? Why waste the energy?”
I waited for his usual speech. Instead he just said, “Geoff and Stefan were right.”
“And you’re still adjuncting, I’m told.”
He broke into a grin with one front tooth missing. I recoiled. “A little scrap at the last one of these,” he said proudly.
Besides the tooth, he looked good. I felt sudden remorse, the vertigo of standing atop a mountain of decisions, large and small, from which it seemed impossible to climb down.
“Taking any punches tonight?” I said.
“Only one way to find out.”
I was about to ask how long the protest would go—just the kind of question he’d always criticized me for—in case there was time for a catch up, a couple of drinks … But someone started up with a bullhorn—No platform for hate! No platform for hate!—and my ex turned to bark it back. Four years together, we’d been just here, so many times that my throat tickled with a gathering shout. Then, coming out of my daze, I remembered my dinner, for which I quite literally couldn’t afford to be late, and I rushed away.
When I saw David next, I was hectic. He immediately started talking about home. But now, instead of bright slivers of memory, it was slabs of rhetoric. “A place like Glory centers you. Grounds you. People took care of each other. Good people. Good work.”
“Your parents tried to kill each other. And your dad got cancer from that mine.”
“I’m not talking about then. I’m talking about before then.” Then he ranted about coal, China, the unions, elites, Catholic professionals. For a moment, I wished I’d brought toys, a strap-on, but I was too jangled for even that rough catharsis. “The problem with liberals”—David was worked up like he hadn’t been in months—“is they care more about people drowning halfway around the world than—”
“Tell me something,” I said.
“What?” His eyes flashed like he was ready to talk dirty.
“If I went back, back to Glory, got a teaching job or something, would you join me? The twins are nearly out of school. Do Bonnie Rae a favor—forget Lieutenant Commander David Flower, just come with me. We’ll get a cabin on the Monongahela. We don’t have to wait. We can just disappear. We can, we can—”
David took me by the shoulders, locked eyes in a way that made me flinch. “Okay,” he said.
“I’m in. Everything you just said, I’m in.”
He told me to give him six months, to get his consultancy started, get an LLC up and running … The way he spoke, to hear him say he was ready—I was floating. All the way back on the train, I was on that bend of the Monongahela, watching the willows feather the lazy brown current, kicking lazily to stay afloat, watching as the boy I loved finally came to join me.
We met again three weeks later, mid-May. The sex was uneventful. I didn’t come, but I didn’t care. Time was opening up. I could feel that stream purling through my fingers and toes, as if the motel bed were gently rocking as I showed David listings on my phone. There was the question of a dock, whether we wanted a little dock, a little boat to tie up. Everything was impossibly cheap down there. It was all shimmering into view.
I almost skipped the shower, to carry David’s scent back to the city with me. But I had another dinner, one I’d hardly given a moment’s thought except to dread it. David got in with me. There under the water, I truly didn’t care where I needed to be. I closed my eyes, pressed my head against his chest.
Finally, I got out, picked my black jeans off the floor. A new email buzzed on my phone. Usually, I waited to look at my inbox until after David dropped me at the train. But I had a sudden hope it was from my client, canceling or postponing.
As David stepped out of the shower, I stood there, brandishing the message on my screen. “What?” he said, startled. “They sent that already?”
“Don’t ‘they’ me. What the fuck are you doing? How can you say any of this?”
Part of it harkened back to the old ads against Francis Huntington Whidbey. Now, however, there was talk of “Fat Francis” allowing illegals to go on crime sprees across the state. There were photos of Whidbey shaking hands with bearded Syrians, cast with a fuzzy gray filter to look like surveillance footage when, on closer inspection, they were taken at a barbecue. “Weak Whidbey,” the message read, “terrorists come on in!” Dave Flower, on the other hand, was calling for watch lists, roundups, deportations, raids on noncompliant businesses. “America for Americans!” And the photos: Dave shooting pistols and machine guns, holding up the glassy-eyed head of a deer (I’d never known him to hunt), standing in a military cemetery, wearing dress uniform and a severe expression. Dave and Bonnie Rae posed before a huge cross, she in a surprisingly short skirt. And finally, one of Dave pointing what appeared to be a military-grade rifle in the direction of another photo of “Whining Whidbey, Agent of ISIS.”
I shouted. I screamed. All of this horseshit about refugees and terrorists and “illegals”—what happened to his fucking family values routine? Was that just not selling this year? “You actually believe this shit? Or you don’t, and that’s worse. You told me you’d come away with me! Are you just hollow? Completely fucking hollow?”
“Liv, come on …” David clutched his towel as if to ward off a blow to his groin. Neither of us could look directly at the other but met gazes in the misted-over mirror. His placid blue eyes and ash blond hair … I brandished my phone again, like a badge, like a totem. “This,” I said, “this is everything I’ve spent my life fighting against.” He just kept staring at me in the mirror, with a blankness that left me flailing, an emptiness that only sent my own voice echoing back. “Just because your parents were crazy rednecks, doesn’t mean you get to …” I sputtered. “You don’t get to! You don’t get to!”
And, hearing myself, I wondered if what I’d really wanted all those years was the luxury not to fight. All those times I could’ve ended it. All the rooms where I’d crawled into bed with David Flower and somehow never believed it could be true, that any of this was actual life. In that moment, I wanted my rage. But all I had was grief.
“I’ll ruin you,” I told him, gesturing at myself, my body. “I’ll go to the media, tell them the God-and-country candidate has been whoring around, and that she’s a fucking Socialist. Card-carrying.” At one time anyway. “I’ll end you. Bonnie Rae, everything.”
But I understood: He hadn’t been insisting on all of these different motels in case Bonnie Rae found him out. I’d just made it explicit. He was only worried for his career, for the destiny he’d thought he was owed since he saw God come out of that campfire.
I reeled out of the room, stood on the railing overlooking I-95, trying to summon a car from the ether. I walked around the motel twice in the haze now turning to rain. I could’ve gone to reception, asked for a cab. Instead, I went back to the room.
David stood in his khakis and a U.S.S. San Juan T-shirt but with no socks on. His hair was still wet, his face waxen and slack. He tried to embrace me. He asked me to stay, we’d talk it all through, he’d go home that very night, confess everything to Bonnie Rae. I couldn’t speak. How had I been so foolish, so convinced he’d go with me? Next to his devotion to that destiny, I didn’t even qualify as the other woman.
“They think I can win,” David Flower told me in his strangled voice, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I need you, Liv. I love you. I always have. I don’t know who I am without you.”
I let him drive me to the station, but we were late, a train just pulling away. I sat there, watching the rain needling the hood of David’s father’s truck. We were both quiet, stunned. I closed my eyes and saw the Thames, its dark, flat indigo stretching out. I saw the Monongahela, sluggish under the lacy shadows, two children on its banks with nothing between them but a sundress and a faded pair of swim trunks. I saw my Hudson, and I was back in my dream, far below the surface, lights flickering, the whole vessel groaning. I kept screaming at David, but he had his face in the periscope. Water sloshed around our knees, our hips. He emerged from whatever he’d targeted, shouted something about the escape hatch. But the floors and steel walls were shuddering. It was too late. We were trapped. We were going down together.
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