The Code

Alex — Cassie’s best friend — steps out of the car, and I watch her ass as she walks toward her dorm building. Cassie moves her hand from my leg and sticks her head out the window, yells something and Alex turns, makes a face then laughs and hops up the stairs.

Barely five feet tall and all of a hundred pounds, max, Alex is tiny in a way that I find sexy, though I’d never tell her that for a lot of reasons, namely because I don’t actually like Alex as a person. She’s pompous, loud, talks too much, and — most importantly — has a boyfriend who I think is cool and who she treats like shit. Which would make it a serious violation of the bro code to tell his girlfriend I’d love to see her bent over my bathroom counter.

Most of the guys I know don’t give a shit about stuff like that, but I like to think I have more of a moral compass than most guys. Like a few years ago, when I found out that one dude from my job-at-the-time was fucking my girlfriend-at-the-time in the front seat of his car outside of a house party thrown by people we all worked with at a Kendall Drive Tony Roma’s — that right there was something I’d never do, a severe violation of the bro code.

Unless I didn’t like the dude. In that case though, I wouldn’t have any reason to uphold the code in the first place, though most people will say that you’ve got to really, really hate a dude to break the bro code by knowingly fucking his girlfriend in front of a bunch of people who are going to promptly report it back to him with looks of glee lacing their eyelids like tears. Gossip as a narcotic.

Situations like that make me wish there was a degree scale for bro code policy, some sort of graded penalty system. Way it is now, fucking a dude’s girlfriend of three years and being called on the minor bro code violation is kind of like stabbing somebody to death and setting their body on fire and being charged with assault and battery.

The main reason I’d never tell Alex I want to fuck her, though, is sitting next to me right now.

Cassie reclines the passenger seat a little, closes the door and turns to me, a tinge of anxiety in her eyes still, even after five months.

I can’t say much different for myself. It’s there in me too, a heavy, shifting presence of combined affection and resentment that seems to get more oppressive each day. It was fun at first, when things were still innocent, before I fell in love with her and found out about her jealousy, before I rediscovered my insecurity in monogamous relationships, before I knew so much about her past and told her so much about mine that it was all either one of us talked about.

Cassie smiles at me as she exhales, the breath from her full lips visible in faint plumes of smoke, bright red embers glowing from the lit Black and Mild cupped in the palm of her hand. I smile back at her and she hands me the Black as I exit the parking lot. I take a drag and hand it back to her. She pulls it from my hand and stares out the window. I watch her for a moment, her auburn hair flowing across her face, jeans so tight I can’t help putting my hand on her leg. She doesn’t look in my direction and I can tell something’s wrong. I hesitate.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She looks at me, eyebrows raised.

“Nothing.” She smiles, pats my hand.

“No, for real, what’s wrong?”

She turns to the window.

“I had a dream about you last night.”

I steady the steering wheel with one hand, the other hand moves from her leg to the gear shift as I watch her put the Black to her lips. She throws a quick glance in my direction and smiles again, nervously.

“Really?” I ask, fixing my gaze back on the road. “Pleasant or the usual paranoia?”

She blushes, exhales. “Just listen.”

This is totally normal. Cassie takes her dreams very seriously, and for the past few months they’ve all involved me. Half of them seem to be good, fun-loving, sensual and occasionally sexual (still haven’t figured out if the sex ones have actually happened or she’s just saying they have for my benefit). The other half aren’t.

We just got back from Christmas vacation, a three week break between Fall and Spring semesters at FSU during which she told me about a few dreams she’d had, most of them involving me being a willing participant in ridiculous acts of infidelity with people I couldn’t possibly cheat on her with (i.e. Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, every Victoria’s Secret model ever, etc.). I didn’t hear about these dreams until I got back to Tallahassee though. I spent the week and a half surrounding Christmas and New Year’s with my parents, visiting family. The rest of my vacation I spent in various places around Miami: drinking at old coworkers’ houses, partying on South Beach or in Kendall, driving around with my best friend and talking about nothing, and one particular night spent in a rundown hotel room having sex with a girl I used to date named Sophia. I don’t know why I did that. Again.

The first time was Memorial Day last semester, when Sophia took a Greyhound the five hundred miles from Miami to Tallahassee to spend three days in my apartment while Cassie thought I was visiting my parents. The weekend was exhilarating in many ways, juggling between being in bed with Sophia and outside in my car talking on the phone to Cassie, acting like I wasn’t five blocks from her dorm room. Then Sophia left back to Miami and my roommate high-fived me and I realized what I’d just done.

The problem for me though — as I’m just now starting to realize — is that not-being-proud of something doesn’t necessarily equal regret.

“I’m listening,” I say.

Smoke from the Black fills the car and moves out the window in a rush, like it’s escaping from us. Cassie hands me the Black.

“I went to some party you were at,” she starts, and I sigh, staring at the glowing cigar in my hand.

“Here we go.”

“Stop it. Listen. I was at a party and you were there, with Julio and Zach and everybody.”

“Mmm,” I grunt, puffing lazily on the Black before handing it back to her. My lungs burn a little, a pleasant sensation with the temperature in the low thirties and the car windows open. I pull the hood on my sweatshirt up over my head and Cassie goes quiet. We’ve stopped at a red light and she looks at me.

“Forget it,” she says.


“You’re not listening to me.” She pouts in this way so I can’t tell whether she’s serious or just being playful.

“I’m listening to you fine. Go ahead.”

She is suspicious. She puts the Black to her mouth again and inhales.

“Anyways, I was at a party and you were there with your friends. And you were all outside in the back. You and Julio were laughing when I walked up and it was about ten of you altogether.”

She hands me the Black and I take it slowly, listening without trying to look too intrigued. I can’t let her know her dreams interest me. Everything about her interests me, I admit that, but I can’t show it. I try sometimes, but then there’s always that damn voice asking Why? Why put yourself out there like that? Why give her the ammo? And I never really know what to say to that dude.

“I walked towards the door,” Cassie continues, “and you were all standing in a circle with some girl in the middle. She was giving one of the other guys head right there, I think Danny.”

I get a flash of my friend Danny, particularly the one night last summer when he and I and all the other boys went to Floyd’s across from FSU and convinced a few girls at the nightclub to come back to Julio’s apartment, at which point we continued drinking and smoking until things just blurred into a melting pot of colors and sensations and nausea. Eventually I left because I was too high and drunk to stay awake, but I heard the next day that Danny had managed to get one of the girls talking about anal sex during a game of truth or dare, which somehow led to him fucking her in the bathroom.

It all sounded a bit farfetched to me, like I can’t really believe that people do shit like that in real life. Then I remembered my own rap sheet: weekend in bed with a girl who turned out to be engaged, drunk ex-girlfriend dragging me outside a night club to blow me in a dirty alley, the Valentine’s Day lingerie party that somehow led to me and a friend having sex with the same girl, at the same time. I shudder and close my window a little.

“It was all of you though,” Cassie says, and I glance at her. “You were all in a circle and she was doing Danny, but you were all cheering for him and waiting your turn.” She peeks at me. “You were next.”

The smoke catches in my throat and I double over, letting out a hacking cough. The car swerves a little and I look up in time to pull it back over as another car approaches in the oncoming lane. I tap the brakes and Cassie glances from me to the road. I cough some more and feel her hand on my back, rubbing gently.

“You all right, babe?”

I look up with a smile and my coughing mellows out, slowly transforms to a chuckle, then full-blown laughter. Cassie stops rubbing my back, frowns and reaches for the Black and Mild in my hand. I pull away and take another drag, which burns in my cough-raw throat.

“It’s not funny,” she says, reaching further. “Gimme.” I exhale and hand her the Black.

“Was that all that happened?” I ask.

“Yes, forget it.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, still chuckling. “It was just funny.” I pause. “To think about.”

“Whatever,” she says.

“Seriously,” I say. “Think about it. You have a dream with ten guys standing around at a party while one girl gives them all head and another girl — you — stands in the back watching.” I shake my head. “You’ve been watching too much porno.”

“It wasn’t funny when I dreamt it,” she says, but her pout isn’t as defined as it was a moment ago.

“Come on, you gotta admit.” I say, poking her. “You having a dream like that, that shit’s funny.”

A smile creeps up the corner of her lips and she turns her head away slightly. I lean forward.

“You’re smiling,” I say. “I told you.”

She turns and punches me in the shoulder.

“I hate you,” she says.

“No you don’t,” I say.

“No,” she says, smiling and handing me the Black without taking a drag. She holds my eyes in hers and touches my cheek. “I don’t,” she says.

I stare at her then at the Black and Mild and suddenly there’s a sinking feeling in my stomach, a deep urge to stop the car and jump out and just fucking book it, take off down the road and never look back. I watch her for a moment, stare at her hand as it moves and comes to rest on my leg, on my inner thigh. I open my mouth to tell her about Sophia, about Christmas Vacation and Memorial Day, about other thoughts, namely how I can’t stop thinking about her and how I’m not ready for this, that I’m too afraid of being rubbed raw to even try being ready for this. I open my mouth to tell her that I think she’s beautiful and that she’s not crazy for having dreams like that. That I don’t know which is worse: that she dreams like that, or that I don’t. I open my mouth to tell her all these things and then that dude in my head asks me Why again — What’re you trying to prove? — and I close my mouth without saying anything and keep driving toward my apartment. And by time I reach there I can’t remember what I was trying to prove. Can’t even remember why I opened my fucking mouth in the first place.


Patrick  Anderson has stories in Silverthought, Midwest Literary Magazine, Miambiance and The Worcester Review. He received his MFA from University of Central Florida.

At Elmer

It’s karaoke night at the only bar within walking distance of Central Connecticut State University. The air is beyond frigid outside, even for these New England types. As I approach the entrance, crossing Route 175, the atmosphere feels like a walk-in freezer. The smokers congregate outside the door, huddling into each other and puffing quickly. Billows of white smoke emerge from their lips like cannon fire. I walk past them, saying hello.

Inside, the patrons shove themselves into the crammed lounge and bar area, lining up dick to butt, three deep at the bar. They scream at each other over the music or stare into their bottles and say nothing at all. Someone starts singing Journey, again. A drunken chorus reverberates as almost everyone repeats the lines: a cacophony of slurred and off-pitch chanting. It feels warm in here.

Not very much time has passed, and I’m already feeling as buzzed and good as everyone else. I only make 100 dollars every six weeks as a resident assistant of the nearby freshmen dormitory, Vance Hall, so I order Long Island iced teas. It’s the strongest, cheapest drink I can think of and I don’t like waiting three deep in tight spaces. It tenses my nerves.

The other resident assistants in Vance Hall like to play a game with me. I have a standing bet with them for 20 dollars if they can sneak into my unlocked room and snap a picture of me before I awake. Their shadows under the doorway are enough. By the time they place their palms on the door’s handle to twist, I’m sitting up and watching them. Three years removed from Iraq, I still haven’t come down from that combat high – that warrior frame of mind.  

I like being an RA because I’ve found a family outside the military. I’ve found a new group of friends to live, work, and play with, sharing 100% of our time together – just like that brotherhood and camaraderie I enjoyed in the Marines.

Suddenly, someone’s whispering into a microphone. “Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the…”

 “FLOOR!!!” the would-be singer yells and my momentary peace is shattered. It’s a performance of Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” a song which suddenly, I realize, offends my sensibilities.

I’m picturing Corporal Salazar’s body being ejected from the humvee when the suicide bomber rams into his patrol. I’m watching his body arc to the ground and bounce, before stalling against the rocky Iraqi sand. I’m seeing him bleed out, intestine drained and shrapnel sliced. I’m watching hopeless faces circle him as he dies.

I’m no longer warm – my mind and body are on fire instead. I sit down at a booth and curl my face into my locked arms.

While everyone else keeps dancing.


Dario DiBattista is an Iraq War veteran and graduate of the M.A. in Writing Program at The Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in The Washingtonian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Connecticut Review, Three Quarter Review, World Hum. He blogs for many websites, most notably,, which is a resource website for returning veterans. And he teaches writing at The George Washington University and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda for The Veterans Writing Project, and as an adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. You can learn more at


On Happiness

My son and I set out for a summer hike. A steep trail, the woods deep. I’ve seen the geologist’s map, the tightly packed contour lines. A mile and a half ahead waits an old fire tower.

We forsake the main trail for a less-traveled route. The path narrower here, the shade thicker. Above, a smothering canopy, entwined branches. Below, sunless acres of mosses and ferns. Rocks everywhere. Boulders as large as cars. The gnats swarm, a maddening buzz. We don sunglasses to keep the gnats from our eyes, a further snuffing of light, an underworld’s tint on this sunny day. We share the path with July’s toads, small and brown. The trailside’s mayapples shiver with their leaping exodus.

My boy charges ahead. Today we discuss his latest obsession, the mighty Roman Empire. We shake our heads over the palace Caligula built for his horse. We talk about the battle of Cynoscephalae, the flexibility of Flamininus’s legions, the steamroller might of Philip’s phalanx. YouTube has taught my boy the centurion’s marching commands. My son strides ahead, Latin muttered under his breath, his right hand curled into a spear-grasping grip, his left arm raised as if holding a shield. He is eight, yet today I discern a maturity in his stride. He navigates the trail with assurance, his gait dictated by the path’s many rocks. Only a few months ago I had to slow my pace for him. Things have changed.

Warmth kindles in my muscles. The wonders of cellular respiration, its consumption and heat, its gifts of energy. Our afternoon lays open before us, a blurring of time in this setting where clocks matter less than the sun’s rise or a change of season.

For the last fifty yards we take a shortcut, a steep climb littered with rocks and logs. I keep my gaze down, knowing it’s a long walk to the car on a twisted ankle. My son forges ahead. I sidestep a boulder and consider the forces of nature at play: gravity, erosion, the push of water and ice and all the other elements that will outlast my years. We reach the summit’s clearing. Before us, the fire tower, a wide, concrete column seventy feet tall, a sudden apparition through the maples and oaks. My son runs ahead then pauses in the tower’s doorless entrance. “Come on, Dad!”


I enjoy hiking with my son. The expansiveness of the woods fuels our conversations. We are free to roam in body and thought. We hurl stones at trees. We catch frogs and salamanders. We talk about anything he wants. Here is my communion, the intersection of this beauty and the pulse and awareness that is mine alone. Here waits a brand of grace I seldom achieve in the workaday world—the sublime recognition of a moment’s happiness.

A series of concrete shafts honeycomb the fire tower. The shafts are fifteen feet tall, narrow spaces claimed by bolted metal ladders. At the top of each ladder waits a step-over onto a yard-square concrete slab, and atop the slab, the next ladder. Up the ladders we go, zigzagging back and forth. The landing at the foot of every other ladder offers a narrow aperture, no glass, just a slim rectangle that looks down upon the increasingly distant ground. Graffiti adorns the walls, crude offerings in black marker, naked women, scrawled curses. My son passes these, scant attention paid, his focus on the necessities of grip and footing.

He goes first. I follow, my body ready to cradle his should he fall, my hand held close to his rump as he navigates the step-over at the top of each ladder. Today I sport the fading hues of a black eye, last week’s climb highlighted by a boot heel to the face. The shafts are dim, our palms red with the ladders’ rust. Come winter, we’ll pause at the top of the ladders, our breath steaming as we study the clumps of hibernating lady bugs.

Our voices and the clanking of our boots rise up the shafts. I think of a woodwind, its columns of air and the pitches they produce. I think of my son and I, makers of a human music. My son waits at the foot of the final ladder. “Ready?”

I smile. “Ready.”

He climbs and I follow. Above, through the sheltered doorway, a dawning view of blue and white.


The subject of happiness has become a hot topic in the psychological community. This shift in perspective is welcome, a brighter light than the gloom of mental illness and Freud’s repressed drives. Research has supported what we laymen have long taken for granted. Optimists enjoy longer and healthier lives. The euphoria that accompanies the acquisition of a desired object quickly fades. There really is no place like home.

Martin Seligman is the former president of the American Psychological Association and the man many credit with popularizing this investigation into the sunnier end of the emotional spectrum. Seligman proposes happiness consists of three components—pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Of these, Seligman claims the least consequential is pleasure. A smile, after all, can mask a thousand pains. Recent studies have examined the roots of happiness. Religious people tend to possess this deeper brand of contentment. Senses of community, empowerment, and gratitude bring the kind of joy that outlives the giddiness of a new iPad.

While experts agree over the merits of happiness, they split over its proper evaluation. These are scientists after all, men and women fond of empirical data, a luxury in this soft and sunny realm. Bereft of facts, psychologists have cleaved into two distinct camps. One contingent believes happiness is an overall picture, a panoramic view of one’s life. Countering are those who contend happiness is more akin to a snapshot, an evaluation relevant only in the living, breathing moment.

Let the well-mannered debate begin!

We step onto the tower’s observation deck. July sun, brilliant and clean, a breeze unfelt below. The deck is a circle, ten feet or so in diameter. Around us, a steel cage, the chest-high stone wall I remember from my first visit now enclosed, a response to the thrill-seekers who came here to repel. My son and I catch our breath and share a sip from our water bottle.

The clearing lies directly below, a dizzying glance as we hold our faces close to the bars. The hillside’s treetop canopy slopes away. Other hills beyond, nestled farmlands between. Some of our tower days are misty, the lowlands shrouded in fog, our perch hemmed in by a dreamy white, but today is as clear as can be. In the distance, we spot the domed roof of the rink where my boy places ice hockey. To the west, the twin smokestacks of our town’s chocolate factory. Further still, the Appalachian’s hilly spine.

We sit and eat the granola bars I’ve carried in my pocket. Soon the change of seasons, autumn’s coolness, the vistas of red and gold. Then winter and the stark beauty I love best. We are alone today, just the two of us and the ghosts of park rangers long dead.

My son stands and paces the circle, stopping when the whim strikes him. He grasps the bars, his gaze fixed in the distance. I can only guess what goes through his mind. Perhaps he thinks of nothing beyond the sun and the breeze. Perhaps the valley opens like a battlefield map, the patchwork fields imagined as massed Roman legions.

A shadow passes over us, a momentary eclipse. “Look,” my boy says. Wings spread, a hawk soars above our cage, an effortless glide on warm currents. The bird passes again, close enough for us to see its talons, its spread flight feathers, the three of us the sole inhabitants of this slice of beautiful summer sky.


We stay until my son says he’d like to leave. I go first, waiting at the foot of each ladder until he steps safely onto the landing. We emerge back into the sunshine and begin our downhill hike. He asks my opinion on the Greek hoplon versus the Roman scutum. We pause to study a trail of ants, and we discuss the pheromone-scented path that leads the workers home. Back on the trail, he wields a stick like a centurion’s gladius. Ferns and leaves fly with each swipe.

The psychologists of the world can continue their debates, but perhaps it’s fitting that I can believe both are right. Happiness can be wide in scope, a breath-taking view that stretches from horizon to horizon. Or perhaps happiness may be as ephemeral as the last heartbeat to leap into my chest, an ambush of joy. Chances are my son won’t remember today. This hike will merge into a memory of all hikes. My own memories of eight are dim. Perhaps the best I can do with these days is to help provide him a touchstone, the slate upon which all stories of future happiness will be written.

Onward, little Roman soldier. The trail angles down. We pause to observe a fallen oak. My son’s gladius returns to being a stick, its tip used to flick off the crumbling bark. Beneath, a scurrying underworld, bark beetles and centipedes. I touch my son’s head, a thoughtless stroke of his sweat-curled hair. There are wonders all around us today.


Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 has released his story collections, Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. Sunnyoutside Press released his latest book, Witness, an essay collection. His next book will be a story collection from Press 53, due out next spring.