We could have died from a blink in that godawful desert heat. So we did not blink, or we blinked in our tents with nobody to watch. I thought it was a ball. You came along and spotted it lying in the hot sand. You pointed at it, giggling. You did that funny crablike run all kids your age do when their legs are new, rushing over to it, scooping it up, grinning, and looking around for grown-up approval. You shook it, held it to your ear, listened to its innards. Maybe you had a sister with a pull-string doll. Maybe she went out to play with her friends and you sneaked into her room to hear it talk. Maybe you were sad and no one talked to you the way her doll did. The ball had something to pull, too, didn't it? You pulled it because you wanted to hear it talk. And it talked, all right; it fucking sangâ€”to you, to me, to the other nurses and doctors roaring, rushing, reaching toward you. I can't get over it, kid; can't steer my mind around the fact that I saw it lying there in the Iraqi dust and sand a few minutes before you picked it up. I blinked.
Back in Chicago, I avoid driving by playgrounds on my way to darkened rooms that creak and crack to swings and nine-tails. I don't think about you as seven-inch spiked heels needle my balls; I think about the pain. But Mistress only walks all over me until my time is up, and then I walk out. I always walk out. There has to be a way to lock that door forever.
Tonight, it's on to the mall, where it usually takes me an hour, sometimes longer, to buy a carton of milk. I like standing in front of the convex security mirrors; I like how they make me look differentâ€¦flexible.
When I arrive back at our two-bedroom apartment, Laura is in our room talking to her girlfriend Angel on the phone. Angel is a nurse, too. But the closest thing Angel has ever seen to a war zone is chronic diarrhea in a seventy-two-year-old patient who cared not where he shat. BFD. Big Fucking Deal.
Laura sees me then bye-byes Angel until she finally hangs up. She sits on the edge of our bed and sighs heavily as she watches me step out of my clothes.
"I need a shower."
"How many is that today?"
"As many as it takes."
The rushing water feels like a hundred cold baby-fingers drumming against my head, neck, shoulders, andâ€¦balls; my balls ache. The water's touch there, instead of soothing, feels strange, making a choppy sea in my stomach. When I step onto the bathmat and Laura asks if I'm feeling refreshed, I hear myself say "Go hump yourself" a moment before our five-year-old son Darren appears in the doorway.
He's clutching a ball in his left hand. Suddenly I'm measuring the distance to the toilet.
"Give me that," I say.
His smile melts. "Mommy?"
"Give it to me. Right now. Hand it over." I'm trying to sound calm, trying not to rush him or yank his arm off as I confiscate the thing in his hand on my careening path through the bedroom, into the living room, and onto the sofa, pursued by shocked and inquiring looks. I don't need to turn around to see; I know them well, I know this well. They're holding their breath like they're afraid I'll take them too.
That pause, that tone. I won't let this happen, it says.
"Mommyâ€¦is Daddy okay?"
Now that pause, that toneâ€”the feeling I'm no longer in the room with them but somewhere else, someone else. I can't stand it.
"Richard, it's for you anyway," Laura says, pulling at her fingers as she steps closer to me.
"Darren was bringing it to you. Take a look. I bought it today. I, uhâ€¦I thought it might help."
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