In October of 1991, I was living in a bare-boned cinderblock room on the third floor of a crumbling barracks at the U.S. Navy’s Fleet and Mine Warfare Training Center in Charleston, S.C.
The rooms had no heat, no air conditioning, and the tile floors were yellowed with age, despite being stripped and waxed on a weekly basis. I had a tiny closet full of ugly uniforms, a crappy chair, and a desk tucked under a platform bed. The mattress was pitiful, and the issued sheets were faded and worn from frequent washings. The view sucked, but I liked the blanket; gray, scratchy and wool. I would eventually steal that blanket. But I digress.
I’d spoken hardly a word to anyone since my arrival, focusing my attention on my dog-eared copy of the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, my duct-tape bandaged Walkman, and the pile of cassette tapes I’d brought with me. I was waiting to start “Basic Electricity and Electronics,” the first one of my six-month education in underwater mines and weapons. I hadn’t been there a week when she arrived.
The first time I saw Rachel, I was running down a flight of stairs headed somewhere in a hurry. I jumped the last three steps, caught the steel door frame in my left hand and swung around the corner, almost knocking her over as she stood with her bags in a crowd of new students waiting to be checked in.
I stammered an apology, but my breath caught fast in my chest – it didn’t move for the next six months. She had shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair, the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen, and a perfect smile built from lots of very straight teeth. She was wearing a long, flowered skirt that failed to hide her pin-up girl curves, and a ‘Death To The Pixies’ t-shirt strained at the chest. She was carrying a pair of brown leather sandals. I glanced down at her bare feet; naturally they were perfect.
Something inside me went boom…
I tried hard not to stare as I moved past her, but I couldn’t help it. I tried harder to ignore her, knowing that if I didn’t I was eventually going to make an ass of myself.
Classes started that following Monday. She walked in as the bell rang, looked around and took the open seat next to mine with an amicable “Hi!” and an over-exaggerated wave of her hand. She managed to look good in a stupid Navy uniform.
Even now, I find it impossible to adequately sum her up with words. She was soulful, funny, slinky, and intelligent. We struck up a conversation between classes, discovering we had much in common – similar tastes in music, movies and books. Well, that and the fact that no one else in our class seemed to want to have anything to do with either one of us.
Rachel invited me out for a drink that very night, and as our friendship steadily grew, many nights thereafter. But that’s as far as it went, because she usually left with someone else. She seemed to favor well-dressed pretty boys with minimal smarts, the exact opposite of what I had to offer. But what should I expect? She wasn’t mine, and she’d made neither motion nor mention toward becoming mine. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the pain of heartbreak whenever she walked away with one of them.
I didn’t much care to feel that way, so I began ignoring her, declining her offers for drinks and making lame excuses not to hang out with her. I just couldn’t be around this incredible girl and not want her for myself, so I opted not to be around her at all. You can say whatever you like about my flawed logic. You weren’t in my shoes, so I personally don’t give a spit what you think.
One weekend when she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, we drove to a nearby strip mall to browse for used music. I’d been saving up for a leather motorcycle jacket, and I bought one from a guy selling them out of the back of a large truck in the nearly empty parking lot. It was a real solid piece of armor, and I got it for almost nothing. We returned to the barracks that evening and lounged on the steps sharing a smoke.
Damn! Even the way she treated a cigarette gave me chills. Just something about the way she looked at me sidelong when she took a drag. It gives me chills just writing this down.
Presently, she talked me into having dinner with her — no, wait. She talked me into buying her dinner. Now I remember. (Was that the point of all of this?)
I stood up. “OK, I’ll get changed and – .”
“No, you look fine,” she interrupted, “but I can’t wear this.” She gestured to her tattered jeans, t-shirt and flip flops. “Come hang out in my room and talk to me while I get changed.” She stubbed her cigarette out on the step. “I won’t be long.”
“Okay…” I said weakly.
Soon, I’m sitting on an identically crappy chair in her fantastic-smelling room filled with burning incense while making small talk about whatever, looking at the piles of her dirty laundry, thumbing through her CD’s and feeling as close to her as I was probably ever going to get when suddenly, she starts matter-of-factly taking off her clothes.
I picked up a magazine and pretended to be engrossed in an article, just trying to be cool while this incredibly wonderful girl I’d been fantasizing about for the past few months was getting progressively more naked in front of me, and both of us acting like it was no big deal.
She put on some music: ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ by The English Beat.
She kept her back to me.
She kept her leopard print panties on.
“Can I try on your jacket?” Arm across her chest. Eyes, shiny. Hair, tousled. Nails, red.
Something inside me went boom…
“Yeah, sure.” I handed it over, my face hot with flames. She pulled it on, piling her hair on top of her head, pouting, posing and twisting her hips in front of the full length mirror.
I’m flipping through this magazine like a man possessed – hell, I couldn’t even tell you what magazine it was. I was too busy trying ignore her long legs, the smooth cream of her skin vanishing at the waist of my new black leather, the broad silver “V” of the zipper framing her full chest and gently rounded belly, the buckle tapped against her hip. Jesus, she looked amazing…
I tried to imagine what it would feel like to wrap my arms around her waist – the cool interior of the jacket against the back of my hands and forearms, her hot and perfect skin against my palms. All at once I could smell her lotion, her perfume, her shampoo, the bite of the incense and the pungent scent of new leather. I took a long breath of that moment and never exhaled.
But why? Was this some kind of game with her, to see what I would do? Maybe she just felt safe with me. Was that so bad? Maybe she was secretly attracted to me, and hoped to make me jealous by going home with all her pretty idiots. Maybe I was supposed to make a move on her. What if I did, and she rejected me? This was a true Catch-22; damned if I did and dammed if I didn’t. My mind was reeling. Every cell in my body ached for her, and I felt I was going to spontaneously ignite at any moment.
Should I stay? Should I go? Sometimes I find myself back in that room, asking the same questions. I wish I didn’t. There will never be an answer and it won’t help my life one fucking fig to know it, anyway. It’s like a loose tooth you just can’t help but tongue.
Presently, she donned a little black number that clung to her like a desperate man on the side of a cliff, applied her make-up and pronounced herself ready. As we headed out the door she said with a smile, “I’m so glad we’re friends.”
Something inside me went boom…
We made plans to visit her hometown of Binghamton after graduation; she wanted to show me around for a week before I left for Scotland. But just two days before the trip, we got into a stupid argument about something neither of us would back down from.
Just a stupid fight. I forget what it was even about.
Graduation day arrived. I was packed ten minutes after the ceremony, and in the back seat of a Yellow cab ten minutes past that. I arrived at the airport early – decision time. Should I just fly home? Something told me no, not just yet. So I caught an express flight, a twin prop vomit comet leaving for Binghamton in twenty minutes.
The turbulence in the plane was wicked, causing me to refuse my breakfast. Luckily I had a towel in my backpack.
Hey, it’s a big universe, you’ve got to know where your towel is.
The flight gave me time to think. Whatever relationship Rachel and I had or didn’t have, she was still a good friend and I wanted to keep her.
Unfortunately, Rachel never showed. Her family was there but they didn’t see her, either. I called back to the training center. They said she’d checked out immediately after the ceremony. She wasn’t on the next flight, or the one after that. She had simply disappeared into a large expanse of nothing somewhere over the eastern seaboard. With every passing second of not seeing her, I felt my intestines turning closer to lead.
I’ll tell you right now – I never saw Rachel again.
Here I was, wholly unable to explain to Rachel’s frantic family what had happened to her, stranded in Binghamton with nowhere to turn. Luckily, I had Nikki’s number in my address book.
Nikki was a pen pal I’d met one night about five years back while attending boarding school in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d written a lot of letters and she’d answered each of them, so I dialed her number and explained my situation.
She was happy to see me. Her boyfriend wasn’t.
It was an uncomfortable ride, crammed in the back seat of her tiny car. Classic rock blared out of an expensive car stereo. The boyfriend riding shotgun, making sure I saw them holding hands over the gear shift.
“Christ, man. Just piss on her, why don’t you?” I muttered.
Nikki turned the radio down. “You say something, hon?”
I smiled big and leaned forward between the seats. “Yeah, I can’t believe we finally met! What’s it been, five years?” The boyfriend glared harder.
“I know!” Nikki’s laugh was like a bell, her dark curls sticking out from a Grateful Dead ball cap. “How weird is that?”
The boyfriend leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled back at him, he glared back at me and I sat back in my seat, fists shoved deep in my jacket still alive with Rachel’s scent. I was a cat on a hot tin roof, staring out the window at the passing cars, convincing myself that I’d seen Rachel in each of them. This whole thing had been a terrible mistake.
Remember that part about me making an ass of myself? If I learned one thing in the Navy, it was how to drink, and when we arrived at the party, I put bubbles of hurt in every bottle I found. Nikki’s well-dressed girlfriend’s sipped wine coolers and whispered to one another, pointing at my shiny boots, pressed jeans, leather jacket, and shaved head. The boyfriend sat with his football buddies glaring daggers at me. They probably thought I was a real ass. They were probably right. They probably wanted to take me out back and kick the crap out of me, show me ‘how things were done in Binghamton,’ or whatever. I admit it, I was a poor guest.
During the course of the evening, I knocked a picture frame off an end table, babbled endlessly about Rachel, and nearly came to blows with the boyfriend. Nikki let me sleep it off in a guest room and a good friend drove all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to pick me up a day later.
When I arrived in Scotland the following week, I called Rachel’s house. The recording said her number had been disconnected, and each soul-soaked apology came back unopened. ADDRESS UNKNOWN. Her new command said she’d never arrived.
So that was that. I only ever wanted to tell her I was sorry about the fight, that I’d really liked her, and I was grateful for the time we spent together. Anyway, that’s the story of how I single-handedly fucked up a pretty good thing.
Rachel if you’re out there somewhere, I’m really sorry.