I loved her because she was ugly. I loved her because her voice sounded like an old train and her breath smelled like smoke, and it reminded me of stinging dust and the dead air after the explosion of a grenade. I loved her because she had one blue eye and one green eye, and I only had one eye, and somehow they matched up every time she looked at me. But she didn't know my name. No, she didn't know.
“Shut up,” she said, and the others laughed, they laughed like they hadn't laughed in a year, which was true.
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes, you,” she croaked, her voice like corn husks, and she flicked her cigarette down on the ground, ignoring the ash tray at her elbow. The bartender looked like he had swallowed an olive. “Stop being so damn loud. I can hardly hear myself talk.”
I didn't smile; it was a rough way of introducing herself, and I'm a rough man, and I liked it. She didn't slow down; she sped up, her words tripping over each other, because I know how to make big men nervous and she wasn't very big.
“I mean, what's your story?” she asked, leaning forward. The bar was a hole in the wall, music from the other room, dim lights and ghosts. “I think I've heard a dozen stories tonight and not one of them's yours.”
I looked around briefly. I'd known the men at my table longer than I had known myself. I'd heard their stories as I'd been living them, a year in the desert, a year trapped by sun and open fire from fox holes and abandoned villages. Sometimes the sand still clogged my throat and I couldn't speak.
“Not much to tell,” I grunted. But I wanted her to ask.
“Oh, now you really got me,” she said, and winked her green eye. It meant good luck. “You really got me, soldier. What's your name, anyhow? Can I call you Joe? Or how 'bout Jack? You a pirate, Jack?” and she laughed. I would have laughed too, but the scar tissue pulled tight and I thought I was smiling, but maybe I was just scaring her.
We danced after that. Or she danced, and I watched, but our eyes kept meeting and I could feel her thin legs next to mine. I bought them all a round, and I bought her a drink, and I sat on a bar stool while she spun in circles and flashed her crooked white teeth. She gave every man a spin. And then she sat down next to me.
“No name, soldier?” she asked again, hours later. “Still no name?”
“There's a name on my credit card,” I told her. “There's a name on my tags.” And then she quit asking.
* * *
We were five miles out when the gunfire rattled our truck. We tried to swerve but there aren't any roads in Hell, and the jeep tumbled. Gas line broke. Smashed my head against a window but my helmet saved me, and then someone pulled me out a door before the flames leapt up and three other men were left to burn.
I was eighteen when I joined. Eighteen, didn't know how to fucking change a tire. Eighteen and my mother cried at the bus stop when they picked me up, because Dad was dead and I was her only son. I grew up in a field somewhere. A big field with a school a few miles away and that's where I had friends, where I ran laps, where I drank and had sex and did all those young things with young people.
Five years passed and I was back and forth overseas. Had fun in Germany, got sick in Cambodia from bad fish, then was six months in South America somewhere handing out food to school children. Came home when they let me and saw my mother again, folding laundry and watching all that crap on television, and then went to the local schools to tell kids how to be a hero. After that, they sent me to Hell.
We took shelter in an abandoned building half a mile away. They followed us, a renegade band of desert soldiers, faces swathed and invisible against the blinding sun. We collapsed behind a wall, the remaining three, as a fourth was shot down because he moved too slow. They had us pinned, dammit, shut up in a hole with no way out. I kissed the tags at my neck for good luck and prayed to the wall.
An explosion. They were more heavily equipped than we had thought, and debris showered us. I was thrown from my feet; something burned my blood and I felt a wasp nest hit my face and suddenly I was screaming and my throat was stuffed with sand and I couldn't stop firing my gun. I couldn't see. It was panic and ringing air and I couldn't see.
We were rescued a half-hour later. When I could see again, though more narrowly this time, they told me I had killed seven men. Killed seven men and saved one, and I was a hero.
* * *
“You want this,” she said. She was trying to back me into a corner. I had gone to the dark hallway where the bathrooms were to get away from the drunk noise and gunshots, and I don't know if I had looked at her or not, but she had followed me. She was sneaking up on my blind side, putting her tiny hand on my arm. “You know you do. I want it too.”
She thought she was right. She was so sure of it that she swayed her hips and stroked my arm, and stared at my face like it was a museum piece. Her lips were moist and parted, and she ran a tongue across them, thick as sandpaper. She had a mole on her cheek and I could count the hairs on it; everything became fine-tuned, the deep ridges around her smile and her mismatched eyes, two marbles in one skull. I had seen foggy glass marbles before.
She was so sure of it. “You know, soldier, I'm good at passion,” she spoke low, like an old radio. “All you gotta do is relax. Relax and don't think of anything.”
Well timed words, but she was wrong. Wrong, and I turned to look at her, and my good eye could see through her dress and under her skin and at the heart of her problem. “You think I want sex in a dark hallway?” I said. Words hurt my throat. “You think I want you?”
And I looked at her with a narrow eye, and I saw the twitch in her slow grin, I saw the way her shoulders turned inward, how she shifted. She glanced away.
I didn't walk but kept staring, so she tried again, sidling up to me. “I think you do, right here, right now,” she murmured, but her voice was different, like a desert. “How long has it been, soldier?”
I had loved her for her bold laugh and our three symmetrical eyes, but I could tell now that it wasn't real love, no, real love wouldn't look away. Real love didn't ask for a name. “I don't want you,” I said. It was a test.
She looked struck. “What?”
“I don't need you. I don't need anything but a little quiet.” And I watched her crumble. Watched the weak, little shoulders bend inward and downward, her cheeks flair in drunken embarrassment, her eyes briefly light with defiance. She would cry later. She would go home to her little dark apartment, all alone, and cry.
And what could I do, dammit, but watch her turn around and walk back to all the noise and light, because she was looking for something beautiful, she was looking for something glorious and going about it in all the wrong ways. She didn't know true ugliness. She was ugly but she could still look in the mirror and that was beautiful enough for me. But she thought my scars were hiding something, and she was wrong. I was ugly and blind and as twisted and gnarled as the dunes that distorted my face.