Harlequinby Matthew Mellina
Konnie is yelling. I hear her as I open the trunk.
“You are going fucking nuts.” The VA has taught me that “nuts” should never be applied. We’re not “nuts,” we’re heroically damaged.
Konnie is yelling that we have no room left, that our one bedroom is about to burst, but I couldn’t care less. I lift with my back, huffing the two cardboard boxes up our stoop. I am still kissed, while she holds the front door open, and I can never complain even as a rouge staple digs into my arm.
Never mind that we pay too much for the wrong side of town, they say it will be gentrified. Never mind she jumped at the chance for us to be together, choosing a small summer cottage just off Main. We’re all grown up now with our mid-twenties bearing down; Konnie says it’s time to build. To buy the creature comforts. Shams, quilts, and feather-down pillows. Mixing bowls and silverware. A knock-off brand LCD TV. The toiletries and cleaning supplies, color patterns and curtains. We are fighting for space: a house item for a book. A towel for A Passionate Marriage, a tea kettle for Savage Surrender. She’s conned me into buying a Swiffer mop.
I know this is what she wants, something of a home. Something to jolt me away from where I’ve been, to see through the bombs and bullets, to leave it all alone. I don’t tell her this place feels nothing of home. I don’t tell her there were no decisions to be made with wall locker wood grain. Our only option in “home décor” was to snag an extra mattress from supply.
There is a tinge of acid in her voice when she tells me to set the table, that we need to talk after dinner, and though I can’t recall when it all began, I have been waiting for this moment. I’m ready for them to try and intervene. I’m prepared, arranging a list of excuses and explanations for why our apartment is filling with inch thick paperbacks. Perhaps she would understand if I read. Perhaps then this wouldn’t be so “nuts”. I am still not sleeping through the night.
She tells me to set for four, and I search through the overexcitement of her recent shopping sprees, separating the dinner forks from salad forks, soup spoons from teaspoons. She promises I’ll have time to work, that my parents won’t be here for a few hours and while she finishes with dinner I can head in and start. I know she is cooking some recipe my mother gave her.
“You have to be comfortable.” I don’t tell her I would prefer halal lamb and palm dates. I don’t argue any point I may lose but repeat over and over and over that I’ll be all right because she deals with a lot, at least with this, and I am not blind to this addiction I’ve pigeonholed myself into. I know it would be easier if drinking or meth were my thing like it is for the rest of the boys. Something more tangible for her to fight, but I have told her it’s just a fad, a habit I’ll lose steam over after a setback or two.
She says I’m OCD, that I need to find a rhythm, a pattern of home I can grasp onto. She’s read about it. She says it’s time for me to move on, or at least avoid the local libraries, because I’ve been getting looks on my weekly rounds, something of suspicion or even mistrust. What is it about a twenty-something scouring through the battered relics of housewife Harlequins that you can purchase for a dime or quarter? It’s not that I read them—they would never mind that—but when I bring up twelve or twenty at a time, all kitsch romance, I get looks. I need to plan my visits around shift changes. I need to get my mind off of those clichéd youthful fantasies where I fall in love with the librarian in a plaid skirt and fuck her over the Dewey Decimal system.
Listen: We fell apart at the seams.
Correction: We were ripped apart at the seams and memory can be a tricky bitch. After 24 years I still forget my mother’s birthday by a day or two. I remember how Konnie once held my hand after seeing a young vet struggle to get through the door at a local restaurant, her pointer finger slowly caressing mine between the first and second knuckle while our hands were intertwined, a wheel of his chair stuck on some carpet. I forget the button mushrooms, but remember the Santa Margherita.
I am told this is common, the misperception of time and space. I am told this years ago by a “Brain Ranger,” a mid-career officer tasked at “picking up the pieces.” He says, “This is war, we all expected casualties.” That, “We are lucky to have such a televised war, one where soldiers get a day or two of relief when their brothers die.” A day or two to forget the anatomy of an explosion. How it rips through up-armored steel. How the soft packed earth shifts at running speed. How skin sheds at high temperature. How screams are shuttered by displaced air. I cannot claim to remember every bend of color or taste of dust. I can’t claim a lot of things.
They say we need to look out for our own, for the warning signs of depression: the giving away of possessions, the withdrawal, the sleep issues, the telltale Mossberg placed in mouth. That we need to stay mission focused, that we need to keep moving. Williams cried. Collins hummed Auld Lang Syne. I watched all of their reactions one by one by one by one, but I can’t tell the difference between mourning and melancholy. I can’t tell a lot of things.
The “conference room” doubles as our rec room between missions. There is a mustiness brought in by the desert heat and the leaky air-conditioner. Our deck of cards is missing the King of Hearts. There are six folding chairs, a TV and an original Nintendo, but no game cartridges. The pool table is covered with plywood to create the illusion of a boardroom. It is missing the 3 and 8 ball. The cues are all warped. We cleaned our weapons with the supply of tampons that the Red Cross sent us. There isn’t a woman in our unit. We asked for Kettle One not Listerine, Hustler not Better Homes and Gardens. The “Brain Ranger” says to sit and listen, to understand that this pain and fear will subside. That we are soldiers. I remember part of a Killers song. I flip through a magazine and tear out an image of a garden planted around some Connecticut home.
There is a bookcase. There are three bookcases.
Bookcase 2 Shelf 4
Ride a Storm. Guilty of Love. Silver Flame. Destined to Meet. The Orchard King. The Bad Penny. Last Chance Marriage. Gideon’s Fall. Bride on Approval. Scoundrel’s Captive. Texas Splendor. The Accidental Mistress. A Bride for the Holidays. Mission: Marriage. The Man from Madrid. Do You Take This Cowboy? The Fake Fiancé! Daniel and Daughter. Undercover Husband. Dash to the Altar. The Playboy Assignment. Rent-A-Cowboy. The Unexpected Landlord. Signs of Love. The Intruder. Leader of the Pack. Images of Desire. Romantic Encounter. Devon’s Desirer. The Quiet Professor. Reluctant Lover. To Catch a Ghost. Shawnee Bride. Lovestorm. Hungarian Rhapsody. Pirate.
Another Time was published in 1989. It was Susan Napier’s eighth novel. She is still alive, and it’s all too pristine. I cut little frays, with an X-ACTO Z-Series #1 Precision Knife, into the cover and slowly peel, removing bits of lamination. I paint watered-down tea, with a Utrecht Series 1162 Synthetic Sky Brush, in thin layers over the top and fore-edge. I watch James Deen control some unnamed whore and am careful to catch my run off, with a Q-Tip Cotton Swab. I crack its perfect binding.
I want them exact. I want them identical. I repeat and repeat and repeat until they are what they were all those years ago. Then I stack them on the shelves.
She keeps coming in to have the same conversation. She brings super glue to patch up my fingertips. I still have the shakes; I am afraid of being home. I am afraid of her becoming claustrophobic. I’m afraid that this house she wished for—since the day we met in Mr. Finch’s English class—will never be defined. I’m afraid that my past is lost, though I’ll never complain. She will push a book aside. She will want to dust. She will not notice the millimeters the book had moved, the slight difference in the angle it leaned, and I will try to explain the importance as she yells about my stupid obsession. She wants me back to normal, our home back to normal, by all means back to normal. She will yell, tired of my face, my fits, my goddamn books. I will throw her down. I will remember that detainee that spit at me. I will leave her in a bloody mess crying over my past and it will feel like home.
We are not of august. This at least I know. We are something trying to be born, and I suppose this is where we falter, or will falter, when I drag us down my shattered path. Because I am still scattered along the sides of forgotten desert roads. I’ve been left like the dust to settle amongst hastily dug grave sites. Soon my shelves will need to be reinforced.
I want to burn it all down. Peel each page from its binding, soak it all in gasoline, but I cannot find my Zippo. The Winchesters were right, objects can be haunted, and I have poured too much love and despair into their restoration. To build and build and build; this is something of the perpetual. I should take a trip to Northern California.
My father is pacing from corner to corner, running his thumb from spine to spine. I am convinced this is an intervention, but Konnie says it’s just dinner. They’ve missed us. I can hear my mother in the kitchen helping with what smells like broccoli raab with too much garlic and not enough red pepper. My mother will tell Konnie it will be all right. That it’ll stop soon enough, I will find solace eventually. She’ll tell her how she gave my father the spare room.
“How many more do you expect to fit in this house?” He asks while flipping through pages of a recent find. The Boss’s Virgin was published in 2001. It was Charlotte Lamb’s last novel. She is not alive.
“72 more to go.”
Enough to fit a 6´ by 3´ by 1´ bookcase. There needs to be 3. Black stained pine. 5 shelves per case. I am allowed to partially block the window if I buy Konnie a Keurig. They were double stacked on the 1st and 5th and 8th shelf. The 9th shelf needs to be broken dead center. Water rings, nicks, dents, scratches. I found a similar floor model in Target a few months back though it was stained a walnut color. I had to special order the rest.
“You know you can always come to me.”
“That I have my own stories?”
“Stop by for a beer this week.”
I was hoping for disappointment, an accusation or sympathy, but he only smiles slightly and applies the appropriate amount of pressure to my shoulder. This is what we will call compassion though we will never grab that beer, we will never talk of Vietnam. He has a collection of fishing lures. He doesn’t own a rod or reel.
MATTHEW MELLINA served in the Army from 2002-2007, deploying to Iraq in 2006 with the 4th ID. Currently he is working on his first novel. Mellina's writing has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Slate.