Jacksonville was a man’s world, the whole damn place a bachelor pad. The main road leading to Camp Lejeune wasn’t much more than asphalt and spindly pines. The rest was car lots, strip clubs, and tattoo parlors, chain restaurants, and a sad excuse for a mall. Young men with matching crew cuts roamed in packs on the sides of roads. Colorful hot rods purchased with deployment money revved up at red lights. And during rush hour, on the median of Western Boulevard, the Jacksonville Ninja, an anonymous man who seemed as natural to the place as the pines, practiced his finest karate moves with a boombox on his shoulder. Background noise was artillery rounds and low-flying aircraft, both so loud they often set off car alarms. Few people were local, nearly all its residents transplants somehow connected to the Marine Corps. It wasn’t the kind of place a woman chose.
In a town full of bored young men, the place wasn’t short on house parties. Cleve warned me on the way to the first one I ever went to, “The guys get pretty wild.” He said it was best I avoid the back rooms because the owners of the place were swingers. “Sometimes they snort lines and shit, too. Nothin’ you wanna mess with,” he told me as he took a sharp turn into a neighborhood of shabby duplexes and shiny cars.
I rolled my eyes and laughed. Not because I was overly confident going into the environment he described, but because it sounded familiar. I’d recently lived in Tampa, a place known for its nightlife; I’d survived parties like this before. I’d worked at an ale house and that meant sleeping in, working late, then going to whatever rager was happening that night. The house parties were often at pastel-colored, palm-tree-adorned mansions with kids rolling blunts the size of cigars, pissing in the pool, streaking through the house, tripping, snorting, and fucking in the back rooms.
As shy as I was, I’d grown to enjoy the proximity to chaos and recklessness, the thrill of trying something mysterious, something new. A sort of high came with the risk involved: a fight could break out; someone was probably cheating somewhere; the neighbors could call the cops at any moment. I found it addictive, much more interesting than the life I’d had before I turned eighteen with my ten-o’clock curfew and Sunday morning services. Besides, it was easy to fly under the radar, everyone too sloshed to judge me sitting in the corner, petting the dog, and observing the circus around me. It was even easier when I was sloshed, too.
The truth is, my love for it all began when I realized this version of me was much cooler than the one that played it safe. When I was drunk, when I played into the recklessness and the chaos, I made friends. I’d spent years feeling out of place when I was younger, moving from school to school as my parents bounced from one job to the next. I’d become painfully self-conscious my inner monologue always something like, “There’s no way they want to talk to you” or “I’ll never be as pretty as her.” I was lonely and tired of it. Being wanted became my most important endeavor. When I figured out that recklessness made me more interesting, that booze made me more confident, I didn’t see any other choice.
“I can handle it,” I said.
I was surprised about the drugs, though. I’d assumed the military’s random drug tests would keep the guys straight. Instead, I found out they had ways of getting around the tests including chugging gallons of water, eating iodine pills, and going for long jogs wearing trash bags to “sweat that shit out.” It seemed to work for some, but every once in a while, a kid would get busted and booted from the military, a dishonorable discharge slapped onto his record.
I reached for Cleve’s hand, pulled it to my mouth for a kiss. “I’m not the innocent Alabama girl you met in eighth grade.”
“Well, that’s for damn sure,” he said with a wink. He let go of my hand and squeezed my boob.
When we arrived at the party, a man wearing nothing but socks stood on a coffee table, swinging his dick in circles screaming Wooo! over and over between his sips of beer. Behind him, empty cases of Bud Light were stacked against the wall up to the ceiling. The air smelled like stale cigarettes and broccoli, and to the left of me, a man with pink hair like an old brillo pad was sprawled across a tattered green couch, his head and one of his arms hanging off the edge. “He took a Xanie bar,” the naked guy said. “He’s fine…Woo!”
Cleve made his rounds, said hi to all his friends. I followed behind him, holding onto the back pocket of his jeans. It reminded me of when we were kids, him with his confident jokes, me quietly hiding in his shadow. On the back porch sat five people in their underwear. They told us they were playing strip poker. It was winter and freezing, and I thought they were crazy. A shirtless guy introduced himself by telling me he had a third nipple. “See?” he said, pointing to a spot in the center of his rib cage. It looked like the chicken pox scar I had on my chest, powder pink and slightly raised. I wondered for a second if my Mom had lied to me, and I actually had three nipples, too.
“I’m too sober for this shit,” I said, and Cleve led me to the beer. I drank as much as it took for my anxiety to slip away, for a messy confidence to take its place.
The next morning, I woke up on a blow-up mattress next to the mountain of beer boxes with a pistol under my pillow. Cleve told me one of the guys in his unit found out his wife was cheating and pulled the gun on her. Cleve talked him down somehow, took the gun, and thought under my head was a safe place to hide it because nobody would think to look there.
“Just put it in your purse,” he said, no different than if he’d asked me to hold onto his keys.
“There aren’t any bullets in it.” He popped the magazine out to show me.
I’d never held a pistol before, only a shotgun. I was nine. Dad had awoken me in the wee hours of the morning, snuck me out of my room, and driven me to the edge of my Aunt’s farm. We sat in a tree stand for what seemed like hours before we spotted a doe. He placed the gun in my arms and positioned it toward the target.
“Look through here,” he said. “Do you see it?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, afraid the deer might hear me.
The creature was apparition-like, peacefully grazing on soybeans in the dawn light.
“Put your finger on the trigger here,” he said. He placed his finger over mine. “Ready?”
I nodded. Dad pressed his finger on mine, and the gun felt as if it had exploded, the recoil strong enough to leave a sore spot on my tiny shoulder. The doe disappeared.
Later, I’d overhear my Dad talking to my Uncle. They’d found it dead in the woods not far from where I shot it. It was pregnant. I imagined the baby inside her and hated myself for what I’d done. I never wanted to shoot a gun again.
The gun in my purse was heavier than it looked, and I didn’t totally trust that there weren’t bullets in it, that it wouldn’t go off in my purse by accident. I carried it, anyway. Cleve and I eloped later that week.
A few nights before Cleve’s unit was to deploy, he snuck me into the barracks. Typically, civilians weren’t allowed in after hours, but he was friends with the guy “on duty.” To be on duty, I learned, meant you were in charge of making sure no shenanigans were going on in the barracks. The guys who lived there rotated shifts and most of them were friends, so they often turned a blind eye from things that were technically not permitted.
This part of Camp Lejeune was mostly parking lots. It had few trees and what wasn’t paved was dirt and weeds. The barracks were red brick and shaped like shoe boxes with two rows of white railings lining the walkways that encircled the buildings. It was dusk. The moon sat just above the horizon, and as we made our way up the stairs, I smelled cigarette smoke and noticed a crushed beer can crammed in the railing. We reached Cleve’s floor, and a man in a military green t-shirt and gym shorts passed us, carrying a box of belongings that was too big for his arms to wrap around. Another man ran up behind us, passed us, and almost knocked the guy with the box over.
“Reiser, you motherfucker!” the man with the box yelled.
“Sorry, man! Girl’s waitin’ in the car!”
Around the corner, two men, both with medium-reg haircuts and Bud Lights in their hands, peed off the side of the balcony. Cleve grinned. “What the fuck do y’all think you’re doing,” he asked the guys.
“What’s up, Kinsey?” the shorter of the two said, zipping up his pants before reaching his hand out for a handshake.
“You really think I’m gonna touch that hand, Burns?” Cleve said. “You’re outta your mind.”
Burns told Cleve to fuck off before looking to me and smiling. “Who you got there?”
His smile was flirty and his teeth too big for his face. I half-smiled back, chewing on the inside of my mouth, a nervous habit I’d had since childhood.
“This is my wife, Karie,” Cleve said putting his arm around my waist. I said hi and shifted from one leg to the other, hid my free hand in my pants pocket.
“Shit, I didn’t know you got married, man!” He scanned my body. “Not bad, not bad.”
I’d felt like an object since I’d started visiting Cleve at Camp Lejeune, the men and their wives always sizing me up. I’d gotten the impression that, given the chance, a number of his friends would have gladly slept with me. One even said once over a game of pool, “You’re basically my dream girl.” He had scooted so close to me, I could smell the Fritos and whiskey on his breath, could see every hair and bead of sweat on his upper lip. Cleve had just gone to the bathroom. It was difficult for me to understand the relationship he had with some of the other Marines, calling each other brothers, fighting together in war, hoping for chances to fuck each others’ wives.
Cleve squeezed my side as if to say, Just ignore him.
Everyone in the barracks was either cleaning, packing, or drinking. Some were doing all three. When we got to Cleve’s room, one of his roommates was cross-legged on the floor, digging through a giant green duffle bag. He looked up and smiled. “Kinseeeey!”
“Sup, Mallot,” Cleve said. “You gettin’ ready for that sandbox?”
“Fuck yeah. I don’t want my mom finding some of this stuff if things go wrong.”
“I hear that,” Cleve said, and I wondered if he had anything to hide before deploying—secret love letters, porn, incriminating emails. I grimaced.
“Which bed’s yours?” I asked, and Cleve pointed to a single next to the entrance. I sat on it and examined the room while the boys chatted. It was small and gray with a set of bunk beds on one wall and Cleve’s bed on the other. At the back were metal closets and drawers with a mirror in between. The place was drab, reminding me of a hospital waiting room. I wondered if the guys weren’t allowed to have art or if they just hadn’t taken the time.
“Where’s the bathroom,” I asked.
Though I did need to pee, I was mostly curious to see what the bathroom looked like in a place shared by so many men.
Mallot pointed to the back right of the room. “Through that door. Watch out, it’s messy. We share it with the boys next door. Six Marines in a bathroom is no joke.”
“Noted,” I said, making my way to the back.
The bathroom was small, containing only the essentials: toilet, standing shower, and sink. No color, no art, no candles. A couple of pairs of shower shoes parked at the door and anime porn on the back of the toilet, which, I guess, could be considered art. It wasn’t as dirty as other bachelor pads I’d seen, but I still hovered, just in case.
When I was done, I came out to find another guy in the room’s doorway. He had a black trash bag thrown over his shoulder. “They didn’t tell me a lady was here,” he said.
Cleve greeted him with a handshake. “She’s cool.”
“Alright, alright. Well, could I interest you in some porn? Only five dollars,” he said, gesturing toward me.
“Get outta here, Cortez,” Cleve said, starting to push him out the door. “She doesn’t want any of your used up porn.”
“Hey now!” I said. “What do you have?”
“Oooooh!” Cleve and Mallot yelled simultaneously.
Cortez pushed past Cleve. He opened the bag and pulled out a fistful of DVDs.
“Well, let’s see here. The Anal Girls of Tobacco Road, Good Assternoon, Sperms of Endearment, Ultra Kinky #79, Hooters and the Blowjob, Unusual Objects. . .”
I asked him what Unusual Objects was all about and he handed it to me. Cleve and Mallot were laughing in the corner. The cover featured women inserting various objects that, indeed, were unusual into their vaginas. It was disgusting, but I wanted to get a rise out of the guys, so I said, “I’ll take it.”
I’d been living with Cleve’s friend Stephens and his wife, Shannon, since Cleve and I married. Because it was so close to a deployment, the paperwork couldn’t get pushed through fast enough to get us a house of our own. Shannon had mentioned to Cleve that she would consider letting me stay during the deployment, but she wanted to get to know me first. The night we eloped, she invited me over for some wine. We hit it off instantly, and I moved in the next day.
Because they didn’t want to spend their last night before deployment in the barracks, Cleve and Mallot came over for a sleepover. On a whim, we decided to watch Unusual Objects. We gathered around the TV in our pajamas drinking Bud Lights Cleve had bought because he was the only one old enough. Shannon put her six-month-old to bed and gave us the go-ahead to push play. Though we thought it would be funny to watch porn stars put unusual objects in their bodies, it was actually horrifying. Anything to get our minds off war, I guess. I was relieved when the DVD froze just before a woman sat on a sprinkler head.
Stephens stood up. “Welp. Who wants to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos?”
We woke up with the sun the next morning. Shannon stood in the living room in sweats, her hair in a knot on the top of her head, her baby on her hip. She’d done the deployment thing once before, so she chose to stay home and feed the baby while I dropped Cleve and Stephens off. Mallot drove himself. Shannon gave her husband a kiss goodbye, and we piled in the truck.
When we arrived, multiple busses were lined up in front of the barracks. A pile of duffle bags, around four-feet high and ten-feet long, were on the grass. We got out of the truck, and Stephens took off almost immediately. “Later, Fugett,” he said to me as he ran in the opposite direction. I’d kept my last name because I wanted to keep the name-change for the real wedding we were planning to have after they got back. I yelled after Stephens to take care of himself.
Cleve and I hugged. We hadn’t slept much the night before, and the morning had gone by so fast. Until that moment, what was happening hadn’t settled in. I began to cry.
“Don’t worry about me, baby. This isn’t my first rodeo.”
I said every melodramatic thing I could think of, then cupped the outer edges of my hands around his eyes like a little cave, placing my eyes on the other side of that cave—our very own space away from the chaos. I pretended he and I were the only two people in the entire world. “Please take care of yourself,” I said. There was yelling in the distance, then Cleve said he had to go.
He gave me one last kiss on the forehead and took off, disappearing into a sea of uniforms. I sat in the truck, all tears and cigarette smoke, watching the busses pull away. When they were out of sight, I closed my eyes, tears everywhere. I took a deep breath. When I opened my eyes again, I could hardly see my hands, my arms, my thighs through the tears and smoke. I wondered if I was disappearing, wondered how I would survive without him in this unusual town made for men.