Monday, July 19, 2004

An Exorcism, part 2

Note: This story makes more sense if you start with Part One. p.s. It's nearly unforgiveably long.


They saw each other twice more before he left for boot camp. Two days before, he'd been packing up his stuff at his Grandma's, and his Grandma had asked, "Josh, why didn't you bring Thea back around? I like her.  I'd like to keep in touch with her."
"I don't know, Grandma." 
"Give her a call. Invite her over."
For some reason, he did. He felt free of her appeal and as though he could prove it so simply, and that it would be just one more thing put away before he finally really left. To his surprise, she was friendly and happy to come over. Thea and his Grandma talked for an hour over lemonade, nearly ignoring him. Thea seemed to be getting ready to go, when his Grandma said, "Now, dear. You and I will keep in touch, and we'll both keep our eyes on Josh."
Josh felt the blood in his face and watched the blood rise in Thea's. "Grandma..."
"Josh will be okay, Mrs. Kinkead," Thea said. 
"Especially as long as he has friends like you, Thea," Josh's Grandma said, patting Thea's hand. "Now you two should spend some time together before you have to go and I've monopolized you."
Before they could protest, she had left the room, and they sat, in his Grandma's kitchen, across the table from each other. "Thanks for coming over. She really likes you. You should keep in touch with her," he offered.
"Thanks. It's mutual. And I was planning to."
"You were?" 
Thea nodded.  "So, you head out this weekend."
"Yeah. I can't wait." 
Thea chuckled, "Of course." 
He smiled back at her.  "Want to take a walk?"
"Okay, a short one." 
They didn't say a lot, but they held hands as they wandered through the neighborhood. As they came back to his Grandma's house, he turned to face her and brush a stand of hair out of her face. "Josh, I'm sorry," she said. 
"Me, too," he said and kissed her, softly.
The last time they saw each other that summer was the night before he shipped out. He'd just left Amy's house. He had made the rounds to all his friends, saving Amy's goodbye for last. Somehow, he felt he owed her that much. He thought he had probably loved her at one time, but that for a lot longer he'd just been happy to have a free pass. He almost felt apologetic as he left, but he also knew Amy's feelings were shallow and her heartbreak was as much for show as it was true. She wrapped his arms around his neck and cried. "One more time, Josh?" But he didn't want to stay. He kissed her and said goodbye.
Afterwards, he felt restless and anxious about leaving for the first time. It was late and he felt like walking. At first he didn't plan to go anywhere, but after meandering awhile he knew where he was headed.  It was after midnight when he started throwing rocks at Thea's window. Her light was on, and she motioned him to the front door.
"I was just thinking about you," she said as she opened the door, yellow light spilling onto him.
"I leave tomorrow. At eight I have to be at the bus station," his voice felt hollow, and small.
"Do you want to come in?"
"Isn't it late?"
"Well, I guess, but I'm the only one here. Everyone else went camping."
It felt dangerous, but it was the only place he wanted to be.
They talked on the couch for awhile, but almost as soon as he'd stepped through the door he'd felt calmer and sleepy. When she asked if he wanted to stay, it was a foregone conclusion.
They held hands as they climbed the stairs to her bedroom. They kissed as they stood at the edge of the bed. She let him undress her, and then let his hands lead her to undress him.
"It might hurt," he told her as they moved closer and closer to a moment from which they could not return. "I don't want to hurt you." But she pulled him into her anyway and rocked with him as he climaxed.
"That's cool," she said, afterwards. And they laughed.
"Is it really okay?" he asked.
"It's the only thing that's okay," she said.
They fell asleep in each other's arms, and when she started to turn away in her sleep he pulled her closer.
He woke too late to stay for breakfast. She kissed him at the door and started to cry. He wiped away her tears. "I love you," she said.
"I know," he said. And then, "I'll miss you."
He ran down the street and looked back once, but she'd already gone back inside. He was on the bus to Camp Pendleton within an hour.
She wrote him funny, interesting, and affectionate letters while he was at boot camp. He alternately awaited them eagerly and was bored by them. He had so much to prove back then. He wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to be the best soldier.  He wrote back to her about wanting to kill people, wanting to be ready to kill people.  At one point he told her he felt he was becoming such a good soldier that he could kill her if given the command. He wrote to her about how he was hardening his heart and had decided not to love anyone.  That when he was on the field of battle he didn't want there to be anyone back at home he was trying to get back for. Afterwards her letters were more careful, supportive but increasingly distant than she'd been before.  He felt gratified by it.
He visited her at her dorm on leave before his first assignment in Hawaii. He'd felt superior and disdainful of all the "pussy men," and the "hippie chicks" he told her she lived with. He felt elated to feel unattached to her, to be able to push her affection away and watch the confusion and hurt on her face without feeling drawn toward her. Once he was back in Placerville, he gave a call to Thea's best friend and asked her out on a date. She'd declined, but he knew it was all he would need to do to get to Thea. She didn't write to him when he left for Hawaii.
Over the next few years, every so often his Grandma would mention a visit from Thea in a letter. For a moment he'd remember something about her, her smile, her lips, her laugh, but then he'd snort derisively at her persistence in maintaining a relationship with his Grandma. It was pathetic, he thought. Otherwise, he forgot.
After his first tour of duty was almost up, he agreed to a second and within six months, even before his second tour began, President Bush the First declared War on Iraq. He could hardly wait to go. By then he was in Special Forces Recon and had seen action, but war was the ultimate, something he and his Recon buddies had discussed with bravado, longing, and fascination. While he was home on leave before deployment his Grandma, as she did every time he was home, encouraged him to call Thea. "Trust me. She doesn't want to hear from me, Grandma."
"You’re wrong.  I know she does."
More curious than anything else, he gave Thea a call at her parent's place. After a quick hello to her mom, who was surprisingly friendly, he thought, Thea came on the line. He was shocked at how much her voice moved him. Her voice was full of the warmth and playfulness he remembered. "So, you're going to war, Corporal. How's it feel?"
She laughed and it pleased him. He told her he'd signed up for a second tour."Does this mean you are planning on a long military career?" she'd asked.
"No," he said, realizing it for the first time. "This is it. If I make it home, I'm out after this."

"Tired of the macho bullshit?" Her voice held a laugh and he smiled, imagining the look on her face.

"No, that’s the best part.  Tired of all the other bullshit."
"Ahhh.  So, if you make it home..." Her voice trailed a moment. "What will you do next?"
"Robotics, I think," again, the words surprised him, but he realized they were right. "What are you doing?" he asked her. He was starting to think it would be good to see her.
"I'm planning to teach -- elementary school, I think."
"Right this instant?"
"Well, no," she laughed.
"Are you seeing anyone?" he asked her.
"Why would you care?" He heard the smile in her voice as she asked and he smiled back. "Yes, actually," she said after a beat. "I'm living with someone."
He realized he didn't want to know any more and she seemed to sense it, too.
"Can I write to you while you're overseas?" she asked. 
He paused before saying yes. And she did write a few times, and he wrote back. But he was in a war zone, and she and her world seemed very far away to him. He did not think about who he was writing to as he described the infighting in his squad or the grueling danger of their missions. Of course, he barely said anything that really made sense of the chaos of combat and its equally surreal lulls, because he couldn't. So his letters were cryptic and scary, he supposed. She stopped responding and he did not stop to wonder about it.
He did make it home from the war and, for once, his Grandma did not encourage him to call Thea. He could barely even talk to his Grandma, much less anyone else. He was more tired than being home for six weeks would cure. At one point his father came to visit. He brought his new wife and their son and his father kept saying how he was proud of Josh for joining the Marines and fighting for his country, for making something of himself. As though that was all there was to say after all these years.  Grandma fluttered nervously behind him. Josh felt bile rising in his chest and an anger so violent he had to leave. He walked out the front door while they called after him. He went out to the car and sat behind the wheel, trying to remember where he used to go when he was young. Before he was a Marine. He tried to remember the feel of a woman underneath him. He started the car and drove by Amy's parent's house, but didn't stop. Amy was married now. Then he drove by Thea's parents' house. He didn't stop there either. He knew she wasn't there and it didn't matter if she was.
After the war he was stationed at Camp Pendleton again. He was assigned fewer field assignments so he could concentrate on his classes. He applied to college. He looked forward to civilian life. One night out with the guys at a rough and ready bar just across the border, the kind where they were sure to end up in a fight once they'd had enough to drink, a beautiful drunken blonde approached him, dressed all in black leather. "You're IT," she said.
Viv was wild and they were wild together. Partying with her, he barely made it through his classes, but he did. And well enough to enter college as a junior once he was discharged. The day he was discharged he moved into Viv's Mission Bay apartment. She came from money and parents that no longer cared enough about her to wonder how she spent it. He thought she was perfect for him -- the perfect blend of chaos and stability. He liked her unpredictability. It was comforting to him. He wouldn't do drugs with her but he loved the moods they put her in, and he liked scaring off the men who followed her home, having misunderstood her wild ways as an invitation to something Josh felt belonged to him.
He took her to Placerville to meet his Grandma, who was looking old now. Viv laughed at Placerville and his Grandma's deteriorating Victorian home. "Oh good lord, Marine man, no wonder you left."
Josh's Grandma didn't say much during their visit and Josh knew she didn't like Viv. He understood. But he felt he had to tell her. "Grandma, I'm going to ask Viv to marry me."
"She loves me and I love her. She's smart and she's fun."
His Grandma was silent for a moment, and then she said, "You have to make your own mistakes, honey."
"That's right, Grandma," he said, more resigned than angry.
It took another year before Josh could convince Viv to marry him. It sounded too boring to her and she wasn't interested in children, which might have made some sense out of the tragicomedy of marriage, she said. But eventually he threatened to leave her and she agreed.
Shortly after they had finally set a date, Josh got a letter from Thea.
"I got your address from your Grandma. I'm not sure she thought she should give it to me. I hope you won't mind. It might make no sense, but somehow, telling you feels like the last thing I have to do to be ready for this.

"I don't know if you even remember, but the last time we talked I mentioned I was living with someone -- Brian. Brian and I are getting married this summer. He's a good man and I'm lucky.

"I just want to tell you that I learned so much from you the summer after high school. I learned what it feels like to love. And now I know what it feels like to be loved. But you helped a girl become a woman, with all the grace and strength and heartbreak that entails. Despite all the distance between then and now, there is a block of real estate in my heart that will always belong to you. I hope you are happy. Love, Thea"

Her letter made him happy for reasons he could not have articulated at first. Days after he'd sent a happy chatty reply about his own happiness and plans to marry Viv, he realized what it was. He felt forgiven.
He finished school and got a job in Philadelphia. Viv hated to leave San Diego. She threatened to leave him and might have, except that he threatened to put their dogs to sleep if she did. At the time he believed it made sense: she didn't work and he did. It would have been a bad life for the dogs, somewhere new, alone all day without her; or here, alone with her and her craziness.
Without her drug connections, Viv got clean in Philadelphia, which made it possible for the doctors to diagnose her bi-polar condition. When she was on lithium she was dull and listless. When she wasn't, they'd have high times -- until they didn't. On a nearly annual basis, she attempted suicide and they went for another round of counseling. It was the sixth year before a counselor pointed out to him how manipulative the ploy with the dogs had been.
The seventh year they were in Philadelphia, Josh's Grandma died. It was a terrible time.
Viv was in a depressive state and Josh didn't know what to do. For the first time since her diagnosis, he agreed to have her institutionalized so that he could go back to California to settle the estate.