Chapter 1: Marka
Under the neon lights, I check the volume of liquor in the bottles, lifting each one before setting it back down in the stainless steel speed rail, when to my left, in my peripheral vision, I see him pull out one of the worn wooden stools from underneath the bar and sit down.
“Hey, sugar. What can I get for you?” I ask before I even make eye contact, fully immersed in my routine.
It’s not until I’m filling a beer from the tap for a waitress when our eyes meet. Everything stops. I can’t look away, I can’t refocus, the room darkens except for the halo from the blue glass drop light above him at the bar. The clinks and clangs of restaurant noises fade into a deafening silence. The earth actually feels as if it has stopped spinning. The pause in my usually rhythmic movements behind the bar is so dramatic I overfill the beer. The icy head overruns the top of the glass, pouring down the frosty surface and across my knuckles, snapping me back to reality. “Oh, hell,” I hear myself say in a tiny voice, averting my eyes, quickly using my left hand to shut off the tap and try to steady my hand as I place the beer and ticket on the black rubber wait-stand mat.
I pull another ticket from the feeder and read its order.
“I’m still trying to decide,” he says from his seat, scanning the menu.
I assure him I’m listening, but continue to make the drinks for the waitstaff, scooping the ice from the well into glasses for mixed drinks, pulling bottles and pouring liquor, adding mixers and setting out drinks. All of the sudden, I’m thankful that the rush of dinner hour is on us and my newest customer won’t be the center of my attention. I feel awkward and hyperaware of my surroundings, knowing that when he decides his order, I’ll need to make eye contact again.
The computer screen in the bar is adjacent to his seat, where I’m printing a check for a customer when I hear him say, “When you’re ready, I’ll have a Coke and a basket of fried pickles.” With slower movements than normal, I pull the ticket from the printer and tuck it in the sleeve of a black book, take a breath, then turn to face him.
Smiling, I look directly, purposefully, and solely into his green eyes.
“A Coke and an order of fried pickles? Is that all?”
“Yes, ma’am. For now,” his voice is smooth and drawn. He’s quite young.
I give him an exaggerated grimace. “Yikes. Please don’t call me ma’am. I’m Marka, and I’ll literally answer to anything except ’ma’am.’” I wink at him to let him know I’m playing, and he smiles and nods back. What is it about Southern boys and their manners? Polite with olive green eyes. I wonder what happened to his face, but I know the answer. In my mind’s eye I see a cloud of dust kicked up by a tan Hummer in the desert, the violent explosion that overturns it. I imagine him clutching his face, writhing in pain as his fellow troops lay disfigured or dead beside him. Or maybe he was knocked unconscious and skipped the initial torment of feeling his face burn. Somehow that seems more humane, and I hope he wasn’t awake for whatever happened to his face. A part of me wants to stare, to look at the scar it up close, maybe feel the smooth, bubbled skin with the tip of my finger, but obviously I can’t or shouldn’t. Another part of me, maybe equally as strong, doesn’t want to see it at all, doesn’t want to look toward his disfigurement and have to make the conscious decision whether or not to look at it. Both feel awkward and obvious.
So I place his order and tend to my tables, generally busying myself with keeping the bar and waiting tables. It isn’t until I round the corner from the kitchen with his fried pickles that I can see his profile clearly. The skin on the left side of his face is severely damaged. From just above his ear, where his sideburn would have been, down through his cheek to his jawline and around to his mouth is marbled, purple meat instead of skin. His t-shirt is fitting, but not tight, resting on tan biceps. There aren’t any scars on his left forearm that’s resting on the bar. I notice he’s not wearing a wedding ring. He thanks me for the delivery and I pat his shoulder on the way by, and immediately grimacing at myself, hoping I didn’t just seem condescending as hell.
As I work through the shift and talk to couples and parties, I find myself watching him sit alone. No one comes to meet him, but he’s not glued to his cell phone like he’s waiting for anything or anyone’s phone call. The longer the evening drags on, the more customers I bring drinks to and clean up after, the more I find myself glancing up at the scarred man at the counter.
“You doing okay?” My manager suddenly appears at the booth’s edge, startling me out of my thoughts.
“Are you doing okay? You seem distracted today.” His forehead is creased between his eyebrows, one of which is slightly raised higher than the other.
“Oh, um, yeah, I’m fine.”
He leans in, turning his back to the bar and placing one hand on the table I’m cleaning. “Is he giving you any trouble?” he asks with a nod back in the direction of my customer at the bar.
“Oh, no, I’m good,” I say, raising one of my own eyebrows to match his.
“Okay. Just let me know if that changes.” He claps me on the back and walks away in his pressed khakis and black polo, motioning with two fingers to his eyes that he’s keeping his eye on him.
One by one or two by two, the crowd dissipates from the bar, the scarred man orders a burger, and eventually I’m left with cleaning chores and serving him and a few other drinking stragglers.
While I clean the tables and deep leather booths that surround the bar, wiping the crumbs from the tabletops and seats, I imagine what he would have looked like without the scars. I try to picture his face with his toffee-colored skin replacing his scar, the dark soft stubble of his hair replacing the boiled reminder near his ear, but it’s hard.
I wonder if he had a girlfriend before he went into the service. Of course he did, I decide. He looks like he was probably an athlete in high school, but tall and lean like a basketball player, not square like a football player. I bet his girlfriend was pretty, girl-next-door type and smart, probably the top of their class. I try to picture him with a cheerleader, but, watching him sit at the bar alone, sure of himself, needless of other’s attention, it doesn’t quite fit. I bet the bouncy cheerleaders were annoying to him - too needy, too insecure.
Moving to clean the next booth with my spray bottle and rag, lugging the half-full black plastic dish bucket along with me, I wonder where his girlfriend is now. A sequence of all too familiar scenes plays in my head, depicting images I’ve seen or heard time and time again: his departure from a tearful lover as he leaves for boot camp and again when he leaves for the theater - the moment he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and kisses a teardrop off her cheek. I can envision the expression of her face when she receives the phone call that he’s been injured while on duty, mouth dropping open as her knees hit the carpet, tears filling her eyes. “Injured how? Is he going to be okay? Where is he? When can I see him?” I sense her weighty hesitation as she waits for the elevator to reach his floor at the hospital, checking her watch to see what time it is as though it really matters or as though she even cares. I see her cover her mouth in shock as she’s revealed the new face of her boyfriend when the nurse unwraps the gauze to change his bandage. She tries to be strong about all of it, she tries to see past the scar and tell herself that it doesn’t matter, that she wasn’t in love with his face, but for some reason or another she can’t and eventually - not right away and not for such blunt reasons - she breaks up with him. And now here he is... alone.
Standing at the far end of the bar wiping menus clean of debris and dried drops from drinks, I glance back up at him, and he’s just sitting there, watching the news, not paying any attention to me or the old man approaching behind him from the restaurant. Noticing one heading for another, I assume the young man was waiting for him. “Can I get you something?” I ask, but the man waves me off without a word, evoking my curiosity, and approaches my customer at the bar on his left. He extends one hand, and tips his black ball cap printed with the words “Combat Veteran - Vietnam” in gold with the other. My customer shakes the extended hand, both men nod, and without a word spoken, he walked away.
From this side, from where I stand, you can’t even see his scar. From this side, he looks like any other well-bred young man with a round head, strong cheekbones, and a square jaw to match his square shoulders. He’s quite attractive with his dark hair cut short, his green eyes, his lips aren’t full but not thin either, his mouth is kind of heart-shaped, his jawline defined and angular, a little dimple in his right cheek. Is there one on his left? Or was there?
My mind goes back to his scar. I’ve seen so many disturbing side effects from the war from behind the bar, but this one is just so blatant. My God. He wears it on his face, and it draws unrelenting attention to itself. Could the man in the ball cap see him from his seat in the restaurant, I wonder. Or did he spot him on the way to the restroom? Or does he simply have a knack for noticing another combat vet when he sees one? If he didn’t notice the scar before he approached, he has one hell of a composure.
I don’t know if it’s more for him or for me, but I pour us two tequila shots while he’s busy concentrating on the TV. I slide the shot glass down the length of the wooden, highly glossed bar with just enough force that it taps his arm, and I wait. He looks down at the glass, and then back up at me.
“Um,” he hesitates. “I’m not –”
“Old enough? I didn’t ask.”
“-- much of a drinker. But thank you for the offer.” He scoots the glass to the edge of the bar nearest me.
“All right then,” I say, unsure of what else would be appropriate. “Just thought I’d offer.”
“Thank you for the gesture. You’re not the only one. The scar gets lots of drinks bought for me.”
“Oh, it wasn’t about the scar --”
“Sure it was. Would you have bought a shot for any other possibly underage man today?” He grins at me and cocks one eyebrow up. I wink back.
“Only if they were as pretty as you, doll face,” I say. He laughs for the first time. It’s a hearty soulful laugh. His smile is contagious.
“Well, okay then. Fair enough. Now, don’t let me keep you from closing up.” He pulls his wallet out of his pocket and puts a debit card on his ticket in front of him.
“Actually, can I ask you something? And you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel comfortable, but...well, my husband just got back from deployment not long ago and he’s...different. I’m desperate for anything I can do to get through to him sometimes.”
I feel suddenly like a fool and look down at the rag laying on the bar. Why did I ask him that? I didn’t even get the question out right. Looking back up, his expression changed from playful to serious.
“I’m sorry,” I say when he doesn’t immediately answer, “I just assumed...”
With his arm on the bar, he leans closer to me.
“Marka,” he says, “although scars sometimes heal, they never go away. You just learn to accept that they’re a part of you now.” After filling out the credit card slip, he scoots his barstool back and stands, putting his card in his wallet and his wallet back in his pocket. The pause while he does it gives me a minute to think about what he’s said.
“But I could tell you you’re handsome every day until you believe me, but with my husband -- it’s like I’m not even talking to the same man when he’s having...an episode. He was never a violent man before this last deployment, but he gets so angry over the littlest things these days. Last night he threw the remote control so hard that it stuck in the drywall. I left it there, and this morning he asked me how it got there.”
“Have patience with him,” he tells me, nodding. “It won’t be easy, and he will never be the same man he was before he enlisted, but if you can conquer this with him, it’ll be worth it. The last thing he needs is to be alone.” I silently agree and he squeezes my arm. “Now, I’m sure you need to get home to him, so I’ll be on my way.”
I thank him and let him leave before picking up his credit card receipt.
I finish cleaning the bar, close out my register with the night manager, and head home. Only when I get a couple of blocks from the house do I realize I drove the entire way home in silence. I can’t sigh deep enough.
My husband’s car is in the driveway and I pull up next to the curb. The lights are down in the rest of the house, but though the big window I can tell the TV is flickering in the living room. Maybe it’ll be a good night, I think to myself. Maybe he’s asleep on the couch. I gather my purse, take the keys from the ignition, get out of the car, still hoping he’s asleep. It’s not until after I press the key fob and hear the horn honk that I think I probably should’ve locked it manually. If he was asleep, he certainly won’t be now. Shit.
The front door is unlocked and I push it open into the sounds of gunfire and men talking - some yelling - at each other.
He’s playing his video game.
“Pardon me,” I say to him quietly and move quickly across the living room, across his line of sight with the TV.
“Move!” He yells back.
“I hurried. I’m sorry. I had to come inside.”
“‘Had to come inside’ she says. Where have you been, anyway?”
“At work, Austin. Remember? I told you this morning I worked the evening shift. I even left you a note.”
“Never got a note. It’d be nice to -- GODDAMMIT SHOOT THAT MOTHERFUCKER! - It’d be nice to know where my woman is unless you’re trying to hide something. You trying to hide where you’ve been?”
“No, Austin. I’ve been at work.” In the dining room, I peel off the sticky note that I put on the table next to the bowl where his keys and glasses are supposed to go every night so he can find them the next day. “See, honey? Here’s the note I left you - by the key bowl. If you would try to remember to put your keys in the bowl every day --”
“I don’t need to put my keys in a fucking key bowl, okay. I’m fine. And how was I supposed to know you’d put the note there? How was I supposed to know you were at work? I think you were out running around on me. That’s what I think. I think you’ve got some Jodi on the side keeping you busy while I’m at my appointments all day.”
“I don’t have a Jodi, Austin. And what have you been doing all day every day? You missed our marriage counseling appointment again this week. Did you go to the rest of your appointments today, or did you sit here playing video games all day?” I look around the living room. Mountain Dew bottles are scattered about on the coffee table and end table. Three cigarette packs that I’m pretty sure weren’t there yesterday are squished between the cushions of the couch next to where he sits.
“I told you - I’m not going to fucking therapy with you. If you don’t like living here then leave.”
I perch down on the arm of the couch, about three feet from him. “Honey, I don’t want to leave you. I just think perhaps we need some help right now. I think maybe this last deployment got in your head.”
“Ha! What a fucking joke. ‘Got in my head’ - if you think I’m going to let some wizard get in my head, you’re fucked, babe. And you still haven’t answered the question. Where were you tonight?”
“I did answer the question - I told you I was -” Before I can finish the sentence, his hand is around my neck, his fingertips pressing against my spine, his thumb curving over my wind pipe. His face is so close to mine I can see the intricate veins in his hazel eyes and the thick one in his forehead that drops near his temple as it pulses with his rage. His grip is the only thing holding me from tumbling backward off the couch - although, for a split second, I think I’d be grateful if he would drop me so I can catch my breath.
“Lie to me again.”
“Austin!” I gasp, trying to stay still like the therapist told me, not to provoke him further. “Baby, please.”
“Don’t ‘baby please’ me. I want the truth, goddammit.” His voice hot on my face and his breath smells like cigarette burnt too far into the filter.
“Okay, please, I can’t breathe. I can’t talk to you if I can’t breathe.”
“You seem to be doing just fine. Maybe I should tighten my grip.” And he does. I wince against it, holding still against my will that wants to thrash and beat against him, to fight for my own life: Let me go! Tears leak from my eyes into my hairline. I open my mouth but nothing can escape now. The living room goes dark and I raise my hand to him in desperation when he finally drops me onto the floor.
The jolt of the ground against my back shoves air violently out of my lungs. Austin goes back to his video game, ignoring the sounds of my gasping as I scramble for my feet and get to the bathroom, keeping one eye on Austin, who is now leaned back against the couch with one foot up, completely unaware of where I am.
I slip around the corner in the hallway bathroom and lock the door, sinking into a silent sob on the tile floor.
When my heart slows down, I can hear him still playing his game in the living room, so I turn on the hot water, strip down out of my bar-scented work clothes and step into the steam behind the curtain. First, my hands feel the tingle of the hot water, still shaking, then my arms and body. I walk straight into the water, letting it pour over my head and down my back. I lean against the white cool tile wall and cry again, washing the mascara away from my eyes. My bottom lip quivers as the face wash erases black lines from the deep creases around my swollen eyes and I wish it could erase more than just runny black mascara and charcoal-colored eye shadow.
Robotically going through the motions of showering, washing the smell of the bar from my hair, running my fingers gingerly down my neck in search of tender spots and discovering unsurprisingly that my throat is sore, time goes by tortuously. I push back a flood of images that come after almost every episode of Austin’s anger. The memories make it worse, deepening the hole in my chest, shoving me from fear and self-pity to aching loss and sorrow for the happy days gone by, days long lost except for in memory. Snapshots flash in front of my eyes of his smiling face when we used to roll around in bed on Saturday mornings: him always playful and determined to make me giggle against my early-morning, not-yet-caffeinated will. My stomach flutters at the memory of his morning stubble tickling the crevice between my neck and collarbone, which instinctively made me push my head into his warm cheek, placing my lips on his cologne scented neck in return.
The memory’s pain makes me gasp in the shower and clutch my hands against my bare chest. It hurts. “Shove it back,” I tell myself. I’m thankful for the onset of cool water shocking me back to the now, except now I have to get out. With the shower off, I pat myself dry, putting on lotion, and dreading that eventually I’ll have to step out of the bathroom. I wrap myself back up in my towel and with a deep breath, turn the lock on the door quietly. The door has to be lifted a little so it doesn’t squeak. I hate that I know that, but I hate more that I know that I can make it from the bathroom to our bedroom in two large steps, that I know where it’s silent to step and where the floorboards creak, but I do, so I take that path. I only get one chance to glance at him in the interim between the two rooms, and, when I take it, seeing him with his head lolled back and snoring, a wave of relief rushes over me. Even so, I’m just as cautious shutting the bedroom door and locking it to put a barrier between us.
Like a child warding off monsters, the closet light provides comfort. The sheets are cool, but when I turn over, his pillow stares back at me. We are both alone, that pillow and me. I run my hand over it softly, wishing it was Austin’s shoulders, then snuggle up to it in the middle of our bed, cradling it in my arms, missing the sound of his heart beneath my head as I rest, the sound gently strumming a song only I get to hear. It doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep, but I wake up from a dream - or series of dreams - that flee before I can grasp them fully, and that’s okay because if my tear-soaked pillow is any indication, I don’t want to fully remember them. With a startle, though, I remember the night before, and wonder where Austin is. The dawn lets enough light in to see the bedroom door is still closed, so I flip the covers back, get out of bed and quietly unlock it and lean my head out. He’s laid out now on the couch, still asleep, and the breath I didn’t know I was holding escapes the room.
I use the restroom and go to the kitchen to get started for the day without having any idea what mood Austin will wake up in, without wanting to deal with the ramifications of it all, and left wondering what the right thing is to do here - to stay with the Marine I married and pray, to force him to get the help he needs, or to cut my losses and go home before it gets worse and one of us ends up dead. “If you can conquer this with him, it’ll be worth it.” The echo of last night’s conversation with the burned man at the bar answers my question. At the coffee pot, lost in thought, listening to the water percolate, smelling the dark roast fill the air, doing nothing and everything I can to keep it together, I feel him lean against me from behind, running a warm hand around my stomach, kissing the nape of my neck.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he says.
“Morning,” I reply.
“I never heard you come in last night. You have to work late, baby?”
Is he freaking serious?
When I turn around to look at him, I realize he’s being genuine. Last night’s rage filled eyes are now soft and sleepy. He has no clue about last night.
Oh, shit, I think. Proceed with caution.
“No,” I tell him, stirring the swirling creamer into my coffee. “I came home while you were still playing your game. You don’t remember?”
“No....” I can see the gears of his mind grinding, working something out as I take my first sip. His tone is insecure in a way that says he doesn’t know why he’s uncertain of his own answer if he doesn’t think he saw me last night.
“Coffee?” I ask, and turn away to pull a cup from the cupboard.
“Thanks,” he says, taking the cup from me, frowning into it.
“My neck is sore today; can you see anything on it?” I lift my chin to show it to him, wondering if seeing the marks - or hell, even just seeing my throat - will spark anything in his mind.
“You’ve got a red place there,” he touches my neck gingerly with his fingertips then his lips. “You hit something?” he asks, hot breath still on my neck.
Oh, I hit something all right. I hit a nerve, apparently.
“Austin, we need to talk.”
“Uh-oh,” he kisses me quickly on the cheek and looks down his nose at me, but there’s an amusement in his eyes. “Nothing good ever comes from that statement.” He walks past me and pulls one of the wooden oak chairs out from underneath the dining room table and motions for me to come sit on his lap. “Come here, babe. What’s up?”
I decide to pull the chair out next to him instead of taking his offer to sit with him. This makes him frown. “You’re serious,” he says.
“Austin, do you remember me telling you in one of our therapy meetings that you sometimes blackout and do things that you don’t remember doing the next day?”
“Yes,” he says and crosses his arms over his chest, “but I just can’t believe that.”
“Austin, you have to believe it. It’s getting worse. You were up when I got home last night.”
“No, I wasn’t. I would remember you coming in if I was awake. I must’ve been asleep on the couch,” he says.
“No, baby,” I keep my tone soft, trying to understand how he couldn’t remember the fight. How could he not remember the feel of my neck gripped in his hand? Wouldn’t he have felt my veins throb in the palm of his hand? Is my pulse not memorable to him? Oh, how I missed the gentle thump drumming my name when he was on the other side of the world, and yet he doesn’t remember almost killing mine. I clear my throat to push back the lump.
“I came in right after I got off work and you were playing your video game.”
“Maybe I didn’t see you because I was into my game.”
“Oh, you saw me all right. You got suspicious of me having an affair and snapped on me.”
“Well, how late were you?”
“That’s just it. I wasn’t late.”
“Then why would I assume that you were cheating if you weren’t late?” He’s asking me the questions, but also trying to work it out in his mind, his eyes searching mine to see if I’m lying or toying with him.
“Honey,” I reach out for his hand. “The point here isn’t that you accused me of cheating, which I’m not, it’s what you did to me while you were accusing me of it.”
He stares at me without anger in his eyes, without accusation, but filled with loss. He drops his eyes and his hands to his lap. “That’s why your neck is sore today?” he asks without looking up.
Tears fill my eyes and I nod my head at him, unable to answer him aloud. He nods in response, and I know he knows my answer.
“I hurt you.”
I nod again, fighting back a breakdown with all my might. A single tear storms down his nose and drops onto his arm where he quickly wipes it on his athletic shorts.
Long, solemn moments go by without speaking, and I feel the weight of the situation lift off my shoulders as realization sinks down on him, and I wish I could take it back and carry the burden for him.
“I have to go to work in an hour,” I tell him without knowing what else to say, but I don’t get up. He nods at me, still looking down at his folded hands in his lap.
I sit with him a few minutes longer. Another tear falls down his nose. He’s unceremonious about wiping it off.
I finally stand and linger in front of him. I run my hand through his short hair and along the side of his face. I don’t pull his chin up to look at me or lean down for a kiss, but I feel him lean his head into the palm of my hand a little and I stroke his temple with my thumb before walking down the hallway to get dressed.