Right” she said. She tried to sit up straight in her seat and buckle her seat belt. I think she was on the fifth try when I reached over. I clicked the latch into the buckle.
She held me hand. “Thank you,” she told me.
The belligerence was gone.
“I’ll tell you why.”
“Why?” I asked. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Why I’ve been hard on you.”
“Because you remind me of Alex.”
* * *
She was quiet on the drive back to her place. We rolled up to her home away from home, a one story log cabin. She fumbled through her purse to find her key. She was still unsteady on her feet and her hands were shaking. I took the key from her and unlocked the door. It was a modest dwelling, a kitchenette off to the left and a living room to the right. In the back was a bedroom and an adjoining bathroom. There were empty beer bottles strewn on the coffee table, a stack of empty pizza boxes on the kitchen counter, and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Housekeeping clearly wasn’t a priority for Ronnie.
It was cold. I turned on the heat, and a minute later warm air was flowing through the floor vents.
“Thank you,” she mumbled to me as she shuffled off to the bedroom. She flopped on the bed with her clothes on. I watched her, and a minute later she was sound asleep.
It was 5 a.m. and I was dead tired, having been up for almost 24 hours. I sat in the living room sofa and pulled a throw over me to provide some semblance of warmth in the chilly cabin. I must have dozed off, as the bright sunlight streaming through the living room window woke me up. Her wall mounted clock said 10 a.m.
I freshened up in her bathroom, washing my hands in the sink with care, avoiding knocking things off the sink’s apron, which was littered with eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick and a plastic bottle with a few Vicodin still left in it. I picked up the bottle. The name of the patient wasn’t Ronnie’s.
Ronnie was still passed out. I pressed my hand against her shoulder and only got a groan from her. She rolled over. I decided to let her rest.
I went into her closet. Thankfully she was close to my size so I picked out a pair of stretchy yoga pants and a t-shirt. I took a long, hot shower and then changed into her clothes. Refreshed, I tackled the kitchen, washing and drying the dishes and cleaning the living room. It took less than an hour to tidy the place. I opened the refrigerator door. A box with leftover pizza, a partially full carton of beer, and a bag of carrots. The freezer had a bottle of vodka in it and a bowl of dehydrated ice cubes.
I decided to look for a convenience store. My phone told me there was one about two miles away, so I took a Hampshire College sweatshirt out of her dresser drawer and went out into the cold of the morning. I could see my breath. The inside of my car was freezing, and the cold cut right though the yoga pants. I wasn’t wearing any panties, so it made it that much worse.
The convenience store didn’t have a lot. Eggs, white bread, butter, strawberry jam, bacon and coffee. I could make that work. The clerk bagged up the groceries. I couldn’t resist and had him throw in a pack of cigarettes. I rarely smoked, but this seemed like an appropriate occasion.
When I got back, Ronnie was still asleep. I found a serviceable fry pan and located the coffee maker in one of the cabinets. I gave both a thorough cleaning and put the coffee on and started the bacon. I scrambled the eggs in a bowl and set four pieces of bread in the toaster. I found a charger in her room and plugged my phone in. There was a travel book on Austria on the coffee table (that served as a large coaster for a collection of empty beer bottles). I sat on the sofa and started flipping though the pages, waiting for the bacon to fry up. I’d visited our base in Mannheim, coming home from a deployment in the Middle East, and enjoyed a few days touring the German countryside. Austria looked even prettier.
I was flipping through the pages on Salzburg. I always loved The Sound of Music, ever since I saw it for the first time. The city looked so charming. I started dreaming of a European vacation. But when?
Ronnie interrupted my flow of thought. “What are you doing here?” She said it, slouched in a terry cloth robe, holding a partially open whiskey bottle in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other.
“A thank you would be nice.” I pointed to our surroundings. She saw her spotless kitchen and living room.
“Love the military,” she said, fumbling through her robe for a lighter, but not finding one. The clothes she wore last night were under her robe. “You guys are neat.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said with military precision.
“You sound like her,” she said, almost mournfully.
“Yeah.” Ronnie hit the bottle right after she said it. “I almost forgot what she sounded like, but you woke up those brain cells.”
“Oh hey, I almost forgot.” I rummaged through the shopping bag. I held up a lighter. I held it out for her. She leaned forward to light it. She stayed there.
“You have her eyes … shit … why did you come into my bar?”
That would take a long time to give a complete answer. I went to that bar to satisfy an urge I couldn’t continue to hold back. I had known, or at least suspected, for a while, and the time of not knowing for sure was torture. I loved my career. Even though I wouldn’t get discharged, being openly gay meant a tougher road to promotion and the choice assignments. I held back on my curiosity as long as I could.
Walking into Rusty’s was walking into a new world. It was exciting just finally being inside, and then to spend the next twelve hours with Rusty and Ronnie was, believe it or not, was some of the best times of my life.
“I was going to walk into that bar sooner or later. It just happened to be when you were there,” I finally said.
“And it seems like you’re always there,” I couldn’t resist adding.
I poured us each a cup of coffee. Ronnie stubbed out her cigarette and switched to coffee. The whiskey bottle was still nearby. She poured a healthy shot in the coffee and stirred it with her finger. She looked at me and then licked the coffee off her finger. That gave me a shiver.
I looked at her coffee cup and wondered what to say.
“You don’t like my drinking?” She followed my eyes.
“It’s early,” I said as neutrally as possible.
“Fuck you … get out …” she barked at me. This was drill sergeant volume and intensity.
The bacon was starting to burn. I stood there like a statue, not sure if I was really dismissed. Ronnie went over to the stove, and when she put down her coffee cup the cuff of her robe flipped the spatula and splattered hot grease on her exposed arm.
“Fuck!!” she yelled, jarring me to action. I turned off the burner and grabbed her arm, washing off her arm under cold water. I could see the redness and the beginning of a blister that was the size of a penny. It was likely a second degree burn, and would hurt like a motherfucker for a while.
“This is your fault,” she said, practically sneering. I could see pain and anger.
I rescued the anemic ice cubes out of the freezer and put them in a Ziploc bag to use as a cold compress. I gave her a wet hand towel to put on the burn and then gave her the compress.
“It should feel better soon,” I said, helping her hold the ice pack against the burn. She winced at the light pressure.
“Oh … do you have any ibuprofen?” I asked.
“I’ve got Vicodin. I could use a couple now.” She was sitting at the table now, cradling her forehead in the palm of her hand.
“Why don’t we stick with the ibuprofen. I don’t think we want to find out if you mix alcohol and Vicodin.” I dashed towards the bathroom to find it.
“I think the ibuprofen is in my nightstand drawer,” she yelled to my back.
There was a nightstand on each side of the bed, and each had a drawer. I picked the right hand drawer and opened it. A bag of weed, papers, and three vibrators of different shapes and sizes. No ibuprofen. I paused to look at the vibrators. Much more interesting that the bullet shaped one that I kept. I was intrigued by the vibrator that looked like a cactus with one long arm and one short arm. Sounded delicious. Sometimes I used my finger to rub against my anal ring when I masturbated with a vibrator. This kind of vibrator gave me some interesting ideas.
Then I remembered the task at hand.
I went in the other drawer. There was a blister pack of Advil under a pair of stainless steel screw clamps held together with a fine chain. I pictured what Ronnie would be doing those. Would she use them on me? Or better yet, could I use them on her? Focus. I grabbed the pill package and shut the drawer. I went into the kitchen and filled a glass with water. I opened the pack and handed her two pills. I handed her the glass. She put down the glass and popped the two pills in her mouth. She washed them down with the whiskey laced coffee.
She took a deep breath and regained her composure.
“So you were making breakfast?” she asked, in a much more civil tone.
“I was. Till you asked me to leave.” My tone wasn’t as civil as hers.
“Oh yeah … I’m sorry.”
I stood there. I deserved more.
“Will you stay?” she asked, this time more politely. Her shoulders drooped. Her body language said apology but I wanted to hear it. I waited.
“Please? I’m sorry I was a jerk.”
“Sure.” I didn’t need to be back at the base until Monday 0600. I wanted to stay, why, I didn’t know.
“Will you make breakfast?”
“Fuck you.” I threw the burnt bacon in the trash and started four new pieces.
* * *
Ronnie was finishing her second helping of scrambled eggs. My bet was that it was her first square meal in weeks. Our discussion was on hold as she ate. I watched her fork move from her plate to her mouth.
Her accusation was still ringing in my head. “You said it was my fault. I don’t know what I did.”
Her eyes rolled up.
“Can’t you see? You came to Rusty’s. You came to Rusty’s like Alex did. I’ve tried to forget her and now I can’t. I see her when I see you. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to her.”
She held back tears. “I never got to say goodbye.”
Now I could see. I could see that Ronnie’s ship hit an iceberg, and it had been taking on water from the moment she learned of Alex’s death. She never got closure. Alex’s death must have been sudden and unexpected. I just happened to show up during her protracted death spiral.
“Hey, I’ll just finish my coffee and go.” I took my cup and sat on the sofa. I started thumbing through the book on Austria.
Ronnie stood up. She wiped the tears off her face with her sleeve. Her robe opened and I could see the wrinkled dress underneath. She closed the flaps of her robe, clasping them together tightly in her fist.
“No … don’t leave … not yet.”
I took my eyes off the book and looked at her. “Are you sure?”
She sounded as if she was breathless. “Just a few minutes.”
She came over and sat on the sofa next to me. I moved over to make room for her. She pointed to the open page. “That’s the castle that overlooks Salzburg. I had lunch in the café they run. It has a great view.”
“So you’ve been there?”
“I spent week in Salzburg on spring break.”
“Spring break?” I grew up on a farm in North Carolina. We usually spent the summer at my aunt’s house, who lived by a lake up in the mountains. Europe sounded exotic, but Ronnie came from money.
“Yeah, it sucks to be me. I went to a private school, and for spring break we went skiing in Europe. I’d love to go back to Austria,” she said wistfully.
“Alex wanted to …” She stopped.
“Anyway, I’d like to see it again.”
“I’m not Alex,” I said. “I’m sorry about that. I’ve never met her or heard of her until last night.”
I couldn’t be someone I wasn’t. I took my last sip of coffee and got up. Definitely an interesting night and morning.
“Come back someday.” Ronnie came up to me and kissed me tenderly on the cheek.
I wondered if I would.
* * *
Flying … and fucking
It’s a high that’s beyond description. Going supersonic in an F/A — 18F Super Hornet is a pure adrenaline rush. I’d always wanted to fly an airplane, ever since I was a small girl, and to realize that dream (and get paid for it) was one of the best feelings in the world. I’d been slotted for months for additional training on this fighter, and interrupted my helicopter training to spend the next month in Jacksonville … Florida that is.
But as good as it was, it did nothing to fill the void I still had on my emotional side. I had a lot of alone time at night and on the weekends. I thought a lot about Rusty’s … and Ronnie. Even though Ronnie was a handful, I loved Rusty, and I loved the bar, and I loved being who I really was with them. That was the first time I could say and feel what I really felt. I wanted to go back. That was a foregone conclusion.
As far as Ronnie went, if I was still interested, I’d have to figure out how to displace a dead girlfriend. Not that I wanted her to forget Alex, but at least not have her standing between us.
But was Rusty’s the right place? Was Ronnie the right woman? I still didn’t have a clue.
* * *
I was back in California. It was raining outside. A welcome drenching for a drought parched region. I had just dropped my bags in my room after a month in Jacksonville. I was given a weekend pass as a reward for high marks on my training. I couldn’t resist the allure of Rusty’s. Maybe I’d be a bit braver and meet someone. Maybe Ronnie would be there. I had planned it all out in my mind and couldn’t wait to get there.
I got to Rusty’s a bit earlier, around ten as I recall. The parking lot was filled so this time I was rightfully relegated to the auxiliary dirt parking lot across the street. The heavy rains made it muddy, with plenty of large puddles. Of course I wore heels for the occasion, trying to be a bit more presentable. It started raining harder when I opened the car door.
I reached for my five dollar umbrella and deployed it before I stepped out. A gust of wind instantly turned it inside out, breaking two of the ribs. I cursed silently to myself as I fixed the umbrella the best I could, the broken arms hanging uselessly and the protective canopy flapping in the wind whipped rain. I tiptoed through the parking lot, trying to avoid the dark puddles, and watched the muddy water soil my new heels and dot my ankles with specks of black. I was wearing a waterproof parka, but without a functioning umbrella the rain ending up getting my hair completely wet.
I finally got to the entrance, thoroughly soaked, and gingerly climbed the two slippery stairs to the threshold of the door. I tossed the umbrella into the trash can. I could hear live music and loud conversation through the door, and opened it to a blast of warm air, scented with a boozy overtone. I hung up my coat on the rack just inside the door, water dripping on the floor. It was dark inside, and my heart skipped a beat when I thought I spotted Ronnie sitting in her usual spot at the bar. As I approached, I saw that she was having an animated conversation with a shorter, stockier woman who was sitting on the barstool next to hers. The woman had her hand on Ronnie’s bare knee.
“Hey Ronnie …” I said, garnering her attention. I was standing about three feet away, my hair wet and clinging to my face.
Ronnie was dazzling in a red cocktail dress, slit on the side, her legs crossed, showing her leg almost up to her panties. She was wearing matching heels, one dangling on her toes. The dress was low cut enough that most of sides of her full breasts were showing. I could see why Alex was attracted to her. I felt the same attraction, and the cold I was feeling was turning to heat.
My presence was unwanted. Her companion, muscular, with short, shiny black hair, pierced eyebrows and nose, wore a sleeveless black muscle shirt that displayed her heavily tatted arms. She turned her head to face me with a scowl as a hostile greeting. She stiffened up and gave me a piercing stare to make sure I knew I was intruding on her turf.
“Get lost blondie. She’s with me,” she said dismissively. I watched the barbells pierced in her eyebrows raise and lower as she admonished me. Hilarious. She couldn’t scare shit.
She turned back to Ronnie and put her hand back on her knee, this time pushing her hand higher to hike up the hem of Ronnie’s dress to expose her frilly panties. This woman knew I was still there and watching her. This was for my benefit. To mark Ronnie as her territory. Ronnie’s eyes were glassy, and her knees parted slightly to allow the woman to touch all the way to her panties.
The woman took her hand from Ronnie’s panties and held it under her nose.
“She’s mine … git.” She pointed to the door.
I didn’t walk away. It wasn’t in my nature.
Ronnie’s “friend” hopped off her barstool to stand toe to toe with me. She was a few inches shorter, but didn’t appear daunted. I’m sure she suffered that height disadvantage in many of her tussles. She tried to stare me down. That wasn’t going to work either.
“Listen Barbie … get lost, or are you hard of hearing?”
I tried not to laugh. Her bark was that of a puppy dog compared to the verbal skills of my drill sergeant in basic. My dress disguised a harder body than hers.
“I just wanted to say hello to a friend,” I said in an even voice. I knew it would anger her more, but I didn’t care at this point. I did not like this person.
She wasn’t impressed by my reason for staying. She put her hands on my shoulders, trying to move me towards the door. I resisted the temptation to break both of her arms. I doubt she had formal training in hand to hand combat.
“Run along …” she said, trying a more menacing tone, and trying to push me.
That was enough.
“I don’t think so,” I said, now accepting her challenge.
She grabbed a handful of my wet hair and pulled my head close enough to hers so I could smell the bourbon and cigarettes on her breath. Her eyes were blazing with anger.
“Get … lost.”
She let go of my hair and shoved me backwards. That did not sit well with me.
I grabbed her arm and twisted it, bulldogging her to the floor. Her shoulder slammed against the wood plank floor, her cheek pressed against the hardwood before she realized what hit her. I used my free hand to hold her down by the small of her back. Her nostrils were flaring, and she was kicking, but she’d already realized I had her pinned.
“Get the fuck off me,” she growled, now a toothless tiger.
“Not until you apologize for your rude behavior.” I twisted her wrist a little bit more, making her wince.
“OK … I’m sorry,” she spit out.
“Apology accepted. Why don’t you run along?” I pulled her up and shoved her in the direction of the door.
She stumbled, rubbing her wrist. She stopped and turned around. “I’ll be back for you blondie.” She left the bar in a huff. Like I said, hilarious.
Ronnie clapped slowly and loudly. “Bravo officer …”
She raised her glass to toast me and took a sip of her drink.
“Good to see you again too, Ronnie.”
She was being rude. I didn’t appreciate it. I started to leave.
I thought for a moment before stopping. This seemed to me her modus. To antagonize me and then draw me back. I wasn’t ready to leave … yet.
“Yes?” I answered.
“You disappeared,” she accused me.
“I was on assignment for the last month,” I explained.
“You just kicked out my new girlfriend,” she said, more as a clinical observation as opposed to the loss of a girlfriend she treasured. I figured, rightly so, that the woman I helped out the door was a short term relationship. I just help make it a little bit shorter.
“You recruiting from high school now?”
“Very funny. JoAnne’s twenty-four.”