A brush with eyes
When Owen came back from his tour - eight months of the weekday war - nothing had changed but the view.
Although he’d lived in California all his life, he’d seen the ocean about as often as a second cousin. Now that he was stationed here, he could see it from his kitchen window.
He didn't have much to do, so he spent a lot of time at the beach. Running in the mornings, wandering in the afternoons, drinking in the evenings. It was a lot like his service, actually, right down to the sand. The ocean was all that was different.
The worst of it was that he was the same, too. He’d gone to war to be forged. Growing up, watching movies with veterans always haunted and torn up, he’d envied them. It wasn't in any place near the surface, but that was the truth of it. He wanted to be changed, even if it meant being broken.
Greater than his fear of death, greater than his fear of running away, was the fear of never becoming something else than what he’d been. Small. Shy, without the dignity. Vibrating with embarrassed energy, so as not to disappear. Never saying the right thing, and always saying the wrong thing. Talking too much. Never being able to fill the silence. Not being a man.
Yet here he was the same as he was before. A Marine now, a veteran now, but twenty-one going on twelve, and light as air. Laughing too hard, honking and high. Hair gel. Sleightness.
What had happened? Johnny got his gun, but not the girl. No weight. No change. He hadn’t even missed any TV. There was no poignant cheeseburger, no swelling football game to come home to. There was nothing to miss. It had never gone away.
There was a party. A ball. Dress uniforms, gowns. Lights on the night like frosting on cake. It sat there in the night, near the ocean.
He’d been thinking of it earlier that day, alone in his room in the heat of a summer afternoon. He didn’t like parties all that much, but it was filling up the space.
When his phone went off, he wasn’t even watching TV. He was just lying there, listening to himself breathe. Boredom or Buddhism. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
Heyyy mister! Am I going to see you at the thing tonight?
She was a pretty stranger. Andrea. A friend of a friend who wasn’t much of a friend. He knew of her, and she knew of him, but that was as far as he imagined it went. Owen didn’t remember ever having had a conversation with her. All he really did remember was that she had thick hair, thick and dark like it had been carved.
The sheets rustled as he turned on his side to reply. It suddenly seemed like it smelled different. A flashing memory not entirely stitched together, but it was perfume.
Yeah, I’ll be there
A breath, one, two. A rising pound to his heart.
Cause I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Can you buy me a drink? ;-)
Five heartbeats in the space of two.
Awesome! And maybe we can take a walk after? On the beach?
Don’t put the exclamation point.
That was the end of it, right? Nothing more to expect? Set the phone down.
Yay!! See you then :-)
He didn’t realize that he’d gotten up, didn’t realize he’d been pacing, but when he did, he couldn’t lie back down again. There was all that youth again, all that shaking on the inside. What did that make him? He was a soldier with no stories. He would age, but would he ever get old? Would he ever be an old soldier? He’d never taken up any space, never weighed anything. Now here was Andrea, who’d seen him.
Owen tried to remember the details of her face, how tall she was, how she’d looked at him. She had noticed him, so there must be something he was missing. Her eyes were big and playful. She wore lots of make-up, had a loud voice, laughed hard. She was stocky, but feminine. Confident. Pretty, definitely pretty. He liked her. He did like her.
And then the nerves, splashing around his blood and his belly before it had even registered. He could feel it in his guts, like engagements, but the other way around. If you got out alive from a firefight, if you could believe you'd helped protect someone or something, you felt a hard kind of joy. And once you’d felt it, you sought it out. This was the other way around. You wanted to give up. You wanted to be able to give up. It was scary upside down.
He needed the bathroom, his body clenching and unclenching at once. He stood in the shower. He pulled on clothes over wet, catching skin. He shivered even though the sun was still hot in the window. To him it had become a clock, one that was ticking faster than it had before, and slower. He watched it, wondered when to put his uniform on, wondered what was too soon or too late, wondered what would make him feel more comfortable. Of course nothing did.
Twinkling lights and palm trees and noise like waves crashing back.
Cars wading to stops singling through lines mingling through crowds.
He had decided to sit at the bar, the better to feel still, the better to wait without looking. But there was a sticky mass of people all around, like you were nowhere. There wasn't anywhere you could be.
It was the kind of crowd you only get with soldiers and people who like to date soldiers. The youth of it is palpable, and so the high school metaphor fits like a jock - a jock with weapons training, disposable income, and genuine accomplishments. You need to brace yourself.
The whooping, the dancing, the swearing, the brightness of being alive when your business is death - it was all too much for Owen at the best of times, whatever those were. Tonight just the sight of them felt loud. Puffed out chests kept discriminately hairless; shapely figures in old-fashioned dresses who stayed close to their dates; big dance circles with a couple of guys in the middle who’d just taken off their jackets. The bar a tumor in the corner of the room like filing your taxes on the 15th. Everyone who wasn’t part of the scene was a stranger, and Owen wasn’t part of the scene.
He knew people here, of course. He’d been stationed with some of them. They’d had lots of conversations into the night over tequila and poker and incongruous club music. There was probably a bond between them, but it wasn’t the kind you see in movies. They weren’t brothers; they were co-workers. And every place of work is a temporary lie.
But there it was, shining.
Where r u?
It was non-descript.
Haha okay! Meet me by the door?
He plowed through the sound pumping up and the bodies beating the night, and here he was. And there she was. But she didn’t see him.
He tried to catch her eye. She was wearing lots of makeup and a big purple dress. It was all too much, and pretty. He liked whatever was making her hair shine.
He kept his eyes on her and felt them reflected back: felt his face, how he must look, if his ears were too sideways and his lips were too small. He had kissed a girl once for the first time and his tiny lips on her soft ones was all he’d been thinking about.
A spark of a glance and he thought that she’d seen him, but hadn’t looked. Wasn’t trying to look. Maybe was trying not to look.
He came closer, his body feeling like a wine glass tipped forward.
The tininess of her look. The flatness. Skiing on sand.
Quizzical. Polite. Polite is as bad as it gets.
The music was loud. She hadn’t heard him. It didn’t matter.
It was the easiest way to go on looking for whoever she was really waiting for. Why ask? Asking matters. His stomach fell out. But it didn't hurt anymore.
'You...you, uh...I guess you got the wrong number,’ he said. 'You were texting me?’
Her eyes got big. They looked so shiny. 'What?’
There was another Owen. The friend she’d asked knew two.
He’d been walking by the road along the beach for a while before he even noticed the fire. He hadn’t been making for it. He really believed that he wanted to be alone.
But the sea isn’t blue at night, and the sand is darker still. It’s a black alone, and a fire on a beach is all that’s really there. The rest you fill up with the fuzz of the streetlights that turn the ocean blacker still.
What he wanted to see was where the ocean turned to sky, and he could make that out. He could watch it. But watching doesn’t give you much. You want the time to speed up but it slows down. Your heart feels full but your mind is empty. There doesn’t seem to be anything to fill it with. A dark line stretching across everywhere you see.
And then there was the fire.
And the people. The sound of it, sharper than the sight. Voices. Smoke. Impossible lightness.
He saw a woman there. She was sort of dancing. She seemed to be the closest to the fire. People were talking all around her - people were talking to her - she was talking back. But there was an outline to her hair. You could see where it ended.
Before he had decided to he was watching her, staring like he was going to paint her. Owen couldn’t paint. But that’s what he would say if she could see him, if she met his eyes, if she asked him what the fuck he was looking at. Looking is so close. So close. Touching can be a crowd, but looking is an act of love.
And he loved her, the way young men do. The way everyone does who isn’t seen themselves. He didn’t see her, but he watched her. Watched her so closely, like holding a cat. Kept his eyes on her as she moved, the tiniest things. The blonde streaks on her beach brown hair. Her big eyes that were smiling. Her big participatory laugh. She was there.
And she saw him. Her eyes wandered to whatever creature had its eyes on her, as sure as anything wild. She saw him. She watched him back, with a curl to her lips. And for a moment he wasn’t sure if she didn’t want him to look.
She looks away. She doesn't look back again. He sinks familiar. He knows he isn't anything, a lanky stranger on the street. He walks away slow, his heart beating in time with his footsteps.
But maybe he was there. And he knew he wasn’t alone anymore. There was a world full of people with eyes.