“How about noon?” offered Staff Sergeant Hollister with a wink. “He says he’s really suicidal.” The psych tech leaned over his swivel chair’s back and blew a juicy raspberry, though of course at a professional and respectable volume.
Dana Tamashi tapped a knuckle against her thigh and stared across the room to the Real men don’t shake their babies! poster, for inspiration, or at least for the fortitude to stave off the crippling fatigue that had dogged her since last night. Sifting for an hour through Internet threads, or more truthfully rants, concerning the DSM-V was not a palliative way to spend her time, but a doctor needed to stay abreast of her field. For instance, she still had to diagnose postpartum depression within four to six weeks after birth, which was, of course, unadulterated bullshit, and she let this be known to the anonymous forum people. “Yeah, I’ll fit him in. He’s an E3?”
“E4, on the flight deck.”
“Well, we don’t want any planes crashing. I can’t say no, right? Then I’m an uncaring professional.”
Through the hole in the Plexiglas, Hollister pinched an intake form from a patient’s hand and began typing. “Oh, you can always say no. It’s not like it’s going to end either way. Never-Ending Story of my life. I can try to give him to Landry if you want.”
“No, no. But shit, how many walk-ins are we going to have this week?”
Hollister pretended to count on his fingers. “Seventy? I don’t know. Walk-ins feed us. They make the world go round.”
“That’s a hell of a thought.”
“Yeah, I guess they actually make the world come to a screeching halt. But that’s good, the world needs brakes.”
Dana traced her nail along the clipboard and tensed her jaw muscles into a brick. Her emerald stud earrings gleamed in the unhealthy, white fluorescent light. “Aren’t we so efficient and mission-ready? We don’t struggle against enormous odds and a deep-seeded range of risk factors, stressors, and trauma within our population. Competently prepared to care for patients in uniform—all day, every day. Rocafeller.”
“Hey, I just process ‘em, ma’am, I can’t make ‘em stop coming. You’d need the DPRK to hit the nuke button for that. It’ll be a few minutes, sir.” He nodded to a glum, bejowled staff sergeant, who stumped over to a gray plastic seat.
“The world gets squirrelly in typhoon season.”
“Only the unprepared. Rebecca and I have our mighty list of storm supplies: dark chocolate and ribs, eight-hundred gigs of movies. But maybe you guys prefer Scrabble.”
“Who plays that, toddlers? I never played it.”
“With the little blocks? Family game night, man. Ma’am.”
“My game nights were pick up pop from the dive bar and bet if he yaks on the car seat. Two points for the floor, five for the dashboard. Everyone can hit the floor. Ten for cupholder.”
Hollister let out a short, raspy laugh. Problems among friends in the clinic were treated without judgment, with lightness and the quick ribbing born of similar hardship. Far-off or not, death was bound to the serviceman like a splint, and so he tolerated all forms of morbid humor, if only because it was necessary in his line of work: dying was a wisecrack stuck into a clause of his contract.
“Did you ever win?”
“Oh, we didn’t really play with points. I would’ve cleaned up, though; my sister failed math every freaking year.”
“That’s fine, I messed up my grocery bill last week, gave the cashier an extra ten bucks. Between yen and dollars, I don’t know. She ran out to give it back, so I let her keep five just because, pay it forward and all that.”
“One time I gave the cashier in Orange Beach an extra dollar—I was six or seven—and he said, ‘Now I’m going to keep this, because you got to learn the value of a George Washington.’ And then I went around and kicked him.”
Hollister bust out laughing.
“Were you like scowling, too?”
“Yeah, I was a bitchy little scowler.”
“That’s fine, I’d just throw up everywhere. Someone gets me mad, I throw up. I break a mug or hit my brother and get caught, I throw up. Defense mechanism, I guess.”
“Jesus, Hollister, are you putzing around again?”
The sergeant jerked upright and grinned with a sickly exposed awkwardness. “Good morning Captain. No, I’m just helping Dr. T here schedule a patient.”
“I can help you schedule a bunch of weekend hours, if you want.”
“No, no sir, I was just…I’m typing up the…”
“Shut it, Hollister, I wanted to see if you’d throw up.”
“Oh—oh that, you heard. Nice one, Captain. If you want me to throw up just bring some more of that sushi you found.”
“Hey, that was fresh. It wasn’t my fault people’s stomachs can’t handle complex flavor.”
“It was sitting on a radiator, Captain.”
“Heat kills bacteria.”
“On that note, I’m going to finish up some notes before noon.”
“When your banter is less interesting than patient notes, you have a problem, Hollister. Let’s get more interesting.”
“Maybe we can teach Dana Scrabble, sir?”
“Who doesn’t know Scrabble? My brother used to kick my ass in it, before I ate half the pieces to show him up.”
“That explains a lot, sir.”
“Plastic doesn’t digest, Hollister. It does not get absorbed into the body.”
“Neither did your sushi.”
Dana waved and retreated to her office, to the picture of Haruki in his crushed green velvet jacket and Levis. Relative peace. The first time they’d met he’d played The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” in English, on the breezy beach, with his students ranged around him like family.
Again Dana stood in the sand with her towel and wrap and listened, drawn in by the bronze statuesque head, the sonorous voice, and the teeth that seemed they could outlast an historical age. Shielding his face, a floppy, cartoonish straw hat. So an aging hippie had proven the best partner for anxious vigilance, and they tested this first over Blue Seal beniimo ice cream and student gossip.
“How do you feel about history?” he said.
“Good, I teach the stuff, I never want to speak of it again.”
“I hope you don’t become a musician then.”
“When I played in a band, I never told people. My business card said ‘Ear Specialist.’ ”
“How were your patients?”
“I did have one poor guy ring me up. My friends and I played him Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ over the phone. He asked me to repeat myself.”
“No offense, but your English is very nice.”
“That’s not a compliment? Don’t worry, you’re black, you’re not racist.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“I don’t even know. I just read it online and thought it was edgy.”
They both laughed, setting each other at ease with needling talk. Discomfort is soothing to the undervalued.
“I feel like killing myself.”
The airman jarred her back to the office, to the unloved moment with the patient and the chuffing, overworked air conditioner. Papers stacked on the desk and the man’s pale face behind them; a budding whitehead.
“Do you have a plan, Peter?”
“For killing myself?”
A careful pause. Dana nodded once.
“Gun, I guess. I flick the safety on and off a lot.”
“And you carry a weapon during your duties?”
“No, I got the clearance from before.”
“And you turn the safety on and off.”
“And hold it up to my head to see what it feels like.”
“This is done during work?”
“On the flight deck? Jesus, no.”
“Do you have a gun at home?”
“Do you have a gun at home, Peter?”
“It’s just a .22. Little baby gun thing.”
“Okay, of course, I was just asking for your safety.”
“Sure, why don’t you just call the shirt and pull me off now?”
“It sounds like you’re worried about what your supervisor is going to think.”
“I went inpatient in Elmendorf twice. Depression and stuff—no suicide crap then. But I was already a fucking nutcase.”
“Going to mental health makes people see you differently.”
“It doesn’t make people see me, period.”
“Just your struggles.”
“My wife, you know? She doesn’t believe me when I say I’ll do it. She says people just say that at one point or another. Taking me serious will make me do it more.”
“It’s 100% frustrating when your spouse won’t trust you on something big.”
“I don’t talk to her about it now. We got two kids.”
Everyone has two fucking kids, of course.
“You have a family.”
“A family that doesn’t let a guy feel like shit once in a while. Hallie’s Air Force too, but she’s OSI. By the book, tough front, whatever. I married her—hah—I married her because I was eighteen and her ass literally made me do backflips. Then you have kids and deploy and everything gets away from you. I feel, I don’t know, hollowed out, you know?”
“You’ve had to wear a lot of hats: father, officer, husband.”
“Where’s my hat, right? You know how much free time I get during the week? An hour. Kids asleep, wife’s at a meeting for locking down the base or banning booze, I watch half a rerun of college football and conk out. If that. Or I get insomnia, but you can’t call that free time, it sure as hell doesn’t feel free.”
“You don’t sleep much?”
“Hours. I wish it was hours. Some days it’s thirty minutes, then I get up, pour coffee down my face, wake up Josh and Alexa, get them dressed, get them brushed, feed them, thank God they can walk with the other kids to class, then I stick my head into a jet turbine.”
“It’s a lot of work.”
“I’m on my feet eleven, twelve hours a day. If I screw up I’ll never get to staff sergeant. Mission-readiness is already iffy in the shirt’s eyes. I’m falling asleep on the job; one time I passed out during a refuel. Guess what that was like?”
“You were exhausted.”
“Official reprimand number two. I was working the fucking snack bar for six weeks. I got health problems. Anxiety, my heart. Migraine headaches, it runs in the family. My mom used to get these headaches, put her out of commission for days at a time. I used to bike to the middle school after class and pick up my sister, she’d ride on the back. Pick up cigarettes for mom on the way home.”
“Ft. Plains. Jesus. No one ever gives you a break out there.”
“In Ft. Plains.”
“On the flight deck. People say you’re just bullshitting, watching the planes take off. You try it sometime, you have to have everything scheduled, tested, cleaned, fueled, double-check the schedule, deal with the pilot saying you’re slow and you used the wrong cleaner. Except he’s screaming.”
“How do you deal with that?”
He waved his hand, cutting office air. His face long and equine and white with packs of freckles.
“I don’t know, what do you want? You just take it. Jesus. It’s the goddamn service, I’m going to complain? I guess I’m complaining now.”
“You’re just saying what you think.” I am afraid I am going to do something very bad.
“You don’t do that in the Air Force. First rule.”
“This is a safe place to do it, though, I just want to say.”
“Sure it is. You won’t call my supervisor and give him your little notes. ‘Patient showed excessive anger, depression. History of mental illness.’”
“I make the judgment call with each patient to contact or not contact the shirt. Right now, what you’re saying is just how you feel. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
He smiled. Dana parsed the layers underneath, smugness and sadness and embarrassment and defeat. She wanted to pat him on the head and give him a Mars Bar, but they didn’t sell those anymore.
“There’s something wrong with me, that’s the whole shebang. Done and done. I’ll get out when I can, when the two years are up, if I make it.”
“Do you feel like killing yourself right now?”
He stared at her beneath a heavy brow, his lips pursed and peeling. “No, I’m peachy. Living it up.”
“Thoughts of suicide are okay to have. They don’t mean you’re evil or messed up or wrong. They happen. I have had thoughts of suicide in the past, and I had to learn the proper ways to care for myself when those times roll around. It’s like learning a language, you know?”
Peter rubbed his palm over his face. His eyebrows cranked up in a gesture of accepted loss. “I failed Spanish every year for ten years. I fucking don’t even say konnichiwa right.”
Dana inclined her head slightly without taking her eyes from the man. “Say it with me: kon-ni-chi-wa.”
Dana stood shadowed in the entranceway with her bag and keys and no smell of dinner floating in from the kitchen. Haruki had a night class that covered postwar life on The Rock; teach the teenagers what happened when cars drove on the right side.
From the bottom shelf in her pantry she dredged up a bottle of wine: merlot, no, not alone. Instead she fixed coffee and set water to boil while Curtis Mayfield sang on her laptop, but Muscles wouldn’t stop jumping on the counter, even after she sprayed him with vinegar.
“Cat, I love you, but you never respect boundaries and you make me uncomfortable with your butthole. It is not a greeting surface, and I’m chopping onions, so for Christ’s sake go lick your belly and contemplate the death of the universe.”
No stars out the window. Wind and traffic, ribbons of artificial sparks. She fried tempura chicken and mushrooms and tossed udon in the hot water. A pain doubled her over the counter with the kitchen knife in her fingers. Forced the smell of leeks in her face.
“Jesus, Muscles, stop using your voodoo powers.”
She laughed, but there was no one so the joke faded into the madness beneath all language. After a time she was able to stand.
“Whatever you have done today, Dana, it is okay. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. Etcetera. Shit, I’m talking out loud again, crazy. Stop saying crazy, it’s stigmatizing. What the fuck? There’s plenty of time for atonement, don’t hash it out now. You’re grieving, right?”
Haruki came home around ten, eccentric in hair display. His Hawaiian shirt was teal, with cartoon otters patterned across it, plus a chest pocket full of Montblanc pens.
“Some debate today,” he said.
“Rice Chex v. Crispix?”
“Crispix is the best, we all agreed.”
Dana feigned reeling back in shock. Her eyes opened wider than they had all day, showing threads of red capillaries.
“You disagree?” said Haruki. “You must be one of those General Mills apologists.”
Dana set the table, which spanned the width of the kitchenette, and tried to block out the horror of her afternoon. “Right after we dropped Fat Boy and Little Man, Kix offered an atomic bomb ring for a box top and fifteen cents.”
“Like a toy? What on earth did it do?”
“Detect radiation or something, I don’t know. Profit off the pain of a lot of people.”
“Society’s not complete without trivializing grief.”
Dana stopped, one fist held up to her jawline, and raised her eyebrow at him. “That sounds like a Dead Prez lyric.”
Haruki set his bag down, slipped out of his coat. He flung silver droplets from his hair. “I must confess I know next to nothing about rap music, but I can say with great confidence that we’re due for a storm.”
Dana pressed her nose into the top of her husband’s skull. “I thought you’d showered, you smell fresh. It’s already raining?”
Haruki ducked out from under her with a nimble side-step, stage right, and landed a kiss behind his wife’s ear, which smelled like shea butter lotion and salt. He unbuttoned his shirt with comic slowness. “Maybe you’ve been sitting down with too many sweaty Marines.”
“They sweat because they work, my dear.”
He hummed Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” strumming invisible chords.
“You know that song? I feel like you know more American music than the Americans.”
A humble shrug. “Half you guys can’t even name your states.”
She mixed the vegetables and chicken into the udon and served it soup-style. Muscles sat on Haruki’s feet while he picked his fingernails at the table.
“Don’t do that,” Dana said, “it’s how people act in Alabama.”
Glancing at her not too pointedly: “Oh? I’ve never been there.”
Dana averted her eyes and dipped her spoon into the murky soup. “It’s a lovely place. Beaches, yelling, swamps. Mosquitos and snakes. People who only smile at you if you’re white.”
“So this is supposed to deter me from picking my nails?”
“Not really. I should have psychoanalyzed your need to touch yourself.”
Haruki reached down and pressed his fingers into the top of Muscles’s skull. “I have a Ph.D. That means I think I’m smarter than any therapist, even if she has a Ph.D, too. It also means I have to know things, which is a horrible burden no one should bear.”
“Like knowing Chex Quest was the first video game they put in cereal boxes as a prize.”
“Never mind,” said Dana. “I’m just distracting myself from thoughts about this walk-in.”
Haruki steepled his fingers in imitation of his wife and nodded sagely, or at least what passed for his idea of Dana’s sagacity. The edge of his mouth curled in a smile. “Ah, confidentiality...”
Dana bit a chunk off an udon noodle. “Yes, and we’re all proud of human advancement in that regard. But he gave me the fucking creeps in my heart and vagina.”
“Always trust those organs, I say.”
“Not the guy I had today, he was fine. Suicidal. This patient on Tuesday I mean, who kept saying he was afraid he was going to do something bad. He just set me off, who knows why—I’m judging unfairly again, I’m sure.”
“You have an eighth sense about these things.”
“Eighth? It’s five.”
“Temperature might be a taste. Plus, uh, spicy.”
Dana goggled at him. “That’s taste, man, taste. Not senses. Taste is just one of them.”
“Sense the taste, I always say.”
“Do you smoke with your students? Is that a thing I should be thinking about?”
“Not this professor.”
“You’re smoking with that what’s-her-name: Etsu?”
“No, no. In my prettier days I did such things. Not with her. She’s too smart for that.”
“You’re still young.”
“You’re in possession of enormous breasts.”
Exasperated sigh. “My husband, I should’ve put snakes in your udon.”
Haruki smiled and slurped a noodle from his bowl. “Habu viper is quite delicious when pickled.” He giggled until his wife flung onions at him, at which point they polished off their meal and shifted to cookies: Oreos and chinsuko.
After the crumbs of their dessert had been scattered over their plates, they sagged more comfortably into their seats and drank hot turmeric tea, which they both pretended to like.
Dana gazed dreamily over the tiles into her living room, past the leather couch and white pine shelf full of books, through the windows giving onto the cramped, quiet street. “I was thinking the other day, about what happened to the girl from ’95. Like what she’s doing now. Do you know, or … ?” She leaned back against the chairslats and set her jaw like a general casing an enemy bivouac.
“From ’95?” said her husband. “I don’t, and never want to. Let her have privacy; it’ll take a lifetime or more to regain it. You know, one of the attackers raped and killed a woman in Georgia, after he got out of prison. Ended up cutting his wrists.”
Dana hissed with the right degree of indignation, though she had heard all this before from Haruki. She wanted to seem present, fully connected. “You think about the lives of these guys, a rapist; constant stress, anger, loneliness. Lots with trauma. You got the rough childhood, the teaching of anger from a parent, the kid trying to protect himself, resolving to use violence as a means of self-preservation. Then he moves to preemptive violence, using power to resolve personal shit, get love and attention, control. You get impressed by your power. You think you’re invincible, and then you just hurt people to make up for the hurt you never dealt with. It’s a rough process.”
“Who wants to make it to the top?” Haruki leaned over his empty plate, stifling a yawn, and brushed Muscles from his foot with a loving application of force.
“It’s just a pit, really. But I’m realizing why are we going into this shit now? I was kind of in the mood before we started this topic.”
Haruki wiped his face clean of noodle bits with the back of his hand and tapped a chopstick on the table. He whistled 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.”
“I guess we can still have sex, then, after that. I don’t even really mind. Isn’t that gross?”
“Love is a funny attitude,” Dana said.
Haruki pushed away his plate and sprang to his feet, painted by the overhead light and the streetlamps outside and the pockets of shadow that worked their way behind the brightness. Muscles the Cat lapped at the leftover soup, while husband and wife adjourned to bed for a demonstration of all that man can offer itself for relief. Plus sex.
“‘Thou makest me merry; I am full of pleasure.’”
“No, don’t practice your play in here.” She elbowed him in the ribs and laughed when he wheezed in surprise.
“I might just fall asleep, now that I think about it.”
“Way to be a citizen, baby. Don’t you want to kick me off the island for hurting you? Ship me back to Alabama in a packing crate?”
“I don’t want to kick you at all. You hit back. And bite.”
Dana slapped him on the back of the head. She bit his ear a little harder than he found comfortable, then slipped her arm around his waist while stars poked between the clouds outside.
“Every time, oh tan professor of mine.”