He’s here on the pretension of installing your dryer. You invited him over after your date, though all you needed was the right-sized wrench to unscrew the rusty bolts on the back. He offers to finish installing your appliance, and you say, No, thank you, and he stops. You like that.
On your velvet sofa, he turns his head to drink from the champagne flute, and you notice a mound in the stubble on his jaw. You reach out to touch it.
It’s shrapnel, he says. I’ve been meaning to have it removed, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. He looks down.
You don’t tell him you think it’s sexy that he has shrapnel in his face. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you need to say it. You’re not sure that this is an okay thing to like, anyway. What would you say, that he’s a hero? Thank you? You even pause before you ask for the full story. It would be rude, but what if you never see him again? Then you’ll always wonder.
He tells you what other people told him, the man with the gun behind the dune. He sat in the backseat before he was ejected. The other three in the Humvee died. He woke up in the States to all white and nurses, and he jumped out of the bed swinging, thinking he’d been captured.
I don’t remember anything but that part, he says. I felt so bad about it, but they said it happens all the time. It’s good I don’t remember the rest. Because I don’t have PTSD from it.
You don’t tell him that veterans from Middle-Eastern wars who have post-traumatic stress can’t date women who look like you. You’d be a trigger. You know this from experience. But again, just because it’s true doesn’t mean you need to say it. And you surely do not need to tell him that the idea that he might fear you is sexy, too, that you like a challenge, or that you were flattered that he guessed your nationality right on the second try (no one does because your mother is Lebanese, and your dad is white), or that you were embarrassed that when he found out, he texted you in Arabic letters, which you could not read, you had to ask him to translate.
You said then, back at dinner, I only know the bad words.
He said, I only know military terms. I can ask where the bombs are but not how to get to the post office. I can teach you what I know, though.
He looked nervous when he explained that he tested well enough to learn Arabic for the Marine Corps, but not well enough for Mandarin, so you smiled at him across the table, across your bourbon, across his beer. He was proud of himself, but he was not confident that he should be. You asked what he did in the service. He told you that he led interrogations on insurgents, had been waterboarded seven times, and had his fingers broken even though he didn’t have to. When you asked why, he said, I didn’t want to do it to anyone else without knowing what it felt like first.
He expected you to spook. Any normal woman would spook.
But you said, Which fingers? and when he extended his left hand, you took it in yours and said, They must have been clean breaks. You don’t have any scars.
They make sure you can heal in six weeks.
He smiled and said, You have a fucked-up sense of humor.
You shrugged and agreed, and then you apologized in case you should not have asked.
He said, I want to talk about it, but no one asks.
On the way back to your place, you thought you had charmed him.
Now, he sits comfortably on your sofa, and you watch him. The glass is dwarfed in his scarless hand. His shoulders are tense, as though the hanger is still in his coat. You say, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable asking these questions. I’m just curious. I’m trying to get to know you.
He mumbles without looking at you, I’m very comfortable. I haven’t felt this good… maybe ever.
Well after midnight, you tell him you should go to sleep, and he does not move from your couch. He pauses and then stammers, I kind of don’t want the night to end.
You stare at him, but he does not look at you. You see that he wishes he hadn’t said it, and when you stand, he jumps to his feet, expecting to be asked to leave. But you say instead, You can stay. But you can’t keep me up all night. And we’re not having sex.
It’s not true, so you had to say it aloud.
You take his glass to the sink and change into your black pajamas and then almost immediately out of them. He shows you the shrapnel scars on his side and hip, whitehot on his already fair skin. He translates his tattoos, The Wasteland on his back, USMC down one arm, IRA motto down the other. The IRA is technically a terrorist organization, he tells you, but the recruiters couldn’t translate the Gaelic.
He asks about your tattoos, too, but they seem less interesting than his, less fatal.
Later he describes the night to you as though you were not there. As your post-orgasmic synesthesia lifts, he reminds you how firm your clitoris was between his teeth, and that the little whimpers you make are everything, and then you recall how tight he held you when you came, and the way he smiled at you and how you slurred your thanks like a fool. You remember how he yelled when you went down on him, afterward. You wondered how much of his noise was embellished and then wonder if it was one of the broken fingers he slid inside of you. You wondered what the debris in his jaw would look like if he ever had it removed. You say none of this aloud.
I love how responsive you are, he says. I like that you listen to me. No one wants to hear these things.
I do, you say. I always want to hear those kinds of stories.
He does not understand why, and neither do you.
Mary Kay McBrayer is a belly-dancer, horror enthusiast, sideshow lover, prose writer, Christian, and literature professor from south of Atlanta. McBrayer is also the creative nonfiction editor for Madcap Review. She is currently working on her first full-length novel about America’s actual first female serial killer, but until then you can check out her other writing and presentations on her website. She has a podcast on which her behavioral therapist friend and she talk about why scary movies scare you (Everything Trying to Kill You), and she is not an animal person.