Not long ago, three desert boys built a paintball field in the middle of nowhere. The idea came to Daley Kushner after his mother, a severely cautious Armenian immigrant unwilling or unable to differentiate between simulated violence and the real thing, refused to pay for her only son to be hunted down “like a mule” at the professional field in Acton. Daley didn’t bother informing her that nobody, not ever, had hunted a mule. He just took his idea to the other boys, who immediately agreed to the plan. Dan Watts, whose parents owned a landscaping business, offered to borrow the necessary equipment, and Robert Karinger — whose dad had fought in the First Gulf War — had the idea to call each other by last name only: Kush, Watts, and Karinger. This gave an otherwise fun project the heaviness of what Karinger called “a life-and-death enterprise.”
“Why Kush,” said Watts, “and not Kushner?”
“Kushner sounds too much like my name,” said Karinger. “We’d confuse people.”
Nobody, Kush knew, would ever confuse him for Karinger, and what people there were to confuse, Kush couldn’t say. He was just grateful to have a nickname, and ready to get to work.
This was the summer before high school. The boys biked from town to the Antelope Valley’s uncultivated desert, working long days so they could get the most use out of the paintball field before classes started in the fall. The dirt from newly dug trenches and bunkers established rings of three-foot-high passageways and walls, which Karinger called “bulkheads.” From time to time, they ventured farther into the desert to find and collect abandoned furniture: a plaid La-Z-Boy sofa — orange foam innards jutting from its arms — made a quality barrier along the north section; a large brass- framed mirror, cracked in places and fogged by the remnants of old adhesives, provided an interesting Enter the Fist effect from an otherwise blind trench. Other objects, including many of the shredded tires lining the nearby 138, were sorted into tall wobbling piles. After weeks of shirtless, blister-forming labor in 100-plus-degree weather, the three boys flexed and compared their newly shaped and sun-soaked muscles. Then they rode home to fetch their guns.
Karinger was the only one to bring along any armor. He owned a face guard designed to look like a World War II–era gas mask. He never wore it, though, and simply carried the mask under his arm in the desert. Holding the mask seemed to give Karinger an indisputable authority, which he used to set up the rules of the game.
“Since there’s three of us, we can only do one of two things — every man for himself, or two-on-ones, rotating the lone wolf.”
The idea of being ganged up on had always frightened Kush, but not badly enough to consider inviting one of the sisters — Karinger’s or his own — to even the teams. He suggested they stick to every man for himself. Then, suddenly afraid, too, of never having a partner: “Or two-on-ones, if you guys want.”
Karinger pressed the tip of his gun against Kush’s chest. Kush hadn’t read Freud yet, but he still felt a kind of thrill.
“In war,” Karinger said, “indecision means death.”
Watts, half-Mexican, tanned while the others burned. He offered his suggestion coolly. “Let’s do every man for himself, see how it goes, and then reassess.”
“Right,” said Karinger. He aimed his gun a few inches from Kush’s foot and fired three shots at a rock the size of a coyote’s skull. He told Kush to pick up the rock and toss it to him.
“This,” Karinger said, holding the paint-splattered rock in front of him, helmet still under his arm, “is the Stone of Victory. Be the first to take the Stone back to your starting point without getting hit, and you win.” He placed the Stone of Victory in the crook of a Joshua tree’s arm.
The three stood back-to-back-to-back and, as directed by Karinger, took one hundred long steps each in his own direction. Then they waited for Karinger to fire his gun in the air — the designation of the start.
Also not long ago, though more recently, I got an email inviting me to a baptism that would take place in my hometown, the Antelope Valley.
The baby to be baptized was a boy whose father happens — or happened — to be an old friend of mine from childhood. The boy’s mother sent the invitation along with an apology for not sending a hard copy. She didn’t know my physical address, she explained, and I wasn’t on any of the social networks. After a bit of investigation, she found a blog I’d contributed to, and an email address. She signed off:
Hope to see you,
Jackie (Connolly) Karinger
For some time after reading the message, I wandered around my apartment, thinking of little else. This was the second piece of news I’d heard about my old friend Karinger in as many months, after a gulf of communication between us that lasted over five years (and never, finally, resolved itself). The other bit of news being that he’d been killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November. Another friend from that time, Dan Watts, with whom I’d been in slightly better touch, called in January to tell me. At one point in the conversation, Watts said: “I always imagined those soldiers using paintball guns, that the war was just a large-scale version of what we played as kids.” I confessed that the same thought had occurred to me.
Still, I couldn’t focus on much in Jackie (Connolly) Karinger’s message other than the strange addition of the smiley face. In bed or in the shower, I’d find myself ascribing to the face some meaning, a hint at something larger, something Jackie (Connolly) Karinger might have wanted to say to me, but could not.
One day in February, I decided to take a walk to mull over the invitation. Even on sunny days, Oakland at that time of year was mysteriously wet and chilly. A used bookstore stood ten blocks from my apartment, and I didn’t realize I was heading there until I was drying my shoes against the mat out front. Lloyd Alcero, an old classmate of mine at Berkeley, greeted me from the register at the center of the store. The place was small, and I could see I was the only customer.
“Hey,” I said. The sound of my voice came out tinny and weak. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. I cleared my throat and moved toward the back of the store, to a section I’d been interested in some time ago, but not so much recently: GLOBAL TERRORISM. Someone had placed a sticker of W’s face on the label. Neck tilted, I scanned the spines along the shelves.
Lloyd Alcero came up behind me. “Doing research for another prize-winning essay?”
There had been an essay contest on campus a few years earlier for English majors. My submission was a piece about the effects of past wars on American fiction (specifically, Salinger’s), compared to the inability of our current wars in the Middle East to produce similar results (due, according to my thesis, not only to the lack of a draft but to an anomalous combination of what I called “unwarranted-ness and apathy” as well). I didn’t — and don’t — know if I believed that, but the essay turned out to win the top prize: publication in Berkeley’s alumni magazine, California, along with a check for five thousand dollars. Naturally, the only people who remembered I’d won were other participants in the competition, including Lloyd Alcero, who brought up the topic every time we spoke.
“No,” I said. “What about you, Lloyd? You writing anything?”
Lloyd was one of those young gay men whose outlandish flamboyance and energy, inextricably linked, seemed to exhaust and straighten other gay men who came into contact with him. He was wearing a white bandanna over his forehead, and a tuft of dyed-green hair sprouted like a small artichoke from his chin. He stopped fussing with the books, happy to hear the question. “Just my novel,” he said, shifting the bandanna. “It just keeps growing and growing — it’s up to, like, twelve hundred pages now. My ideas keep feeding off each other.”
At this point — maybe he noticed my boredom — he pulled from the shelf a book whose cover showed the burning Twin Towers. “Can you believe this September will be ten, as in one-zero, years?”
I did the math; we’d been in high school for less than a month.
“I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was,” he said, laughing. “I spent most of that morning asking people why it was such a big deal. It wasn’t like Britney Spears died or anything. Needless to say, I was not a bright kid.”
I actually felt relieved. To this day, I cringe when I think about how nonchalant I’d been, how casually I’d treated the news. I told Lloyd so.
“Well,” Lloyd said, getting back to the books. “We were just kids, you know? We were children. On the other side of the country, no less. What can you do?”
Choosing a few slim books at random, I stacked them on my arm. I felt a strange, patriotic obligation to buy something.
“You should come in more often,” he said. Again he adjusted his bandanna, which I guessed was a nervous tic.
I wished him luck on his novel. “Let me know when it’s ready for another pair of eyes,” I said.
You could see how long he’d been waiting for someone to say that.
They were only kids, sure, but some of them dealt with the circumstances with more gravity than others. While Watts and Kush, happy to be out of class early, joked about how terrorist attacks should happen more often, Karinger focused on the long-term consequences.
“Maybe we’ll get a world war,” he said.
Since school had started up again, they’d gone out to the paintball field only on the weekends, and went that Saturday after the attacks. The mood was different this time — no one seemed to be having any fun. At one point during the game, Karinger, who’d Scotch-taped a miniature American flag between the eyes of the mask under his arm, started walking, without urgency and without aiming his gun, directly at Kush. Kush was so confused by Karinger’s nonchalance that he hesitated to shoot. And then Karinger did what he’d never done before: he put on the mask. The gas-masked figure kept approaching at this slow, haunted pace, and Kush began to doubt the person behind the mask was Karinger at all. By the time Kush lifted his gun, he felt the sharp blast of a paintball against his right biceps. He dropped his gun to grab at the wound with his left hand, where a second tremendous pain began to grow. Karinger continued to shoot from a few yards away. He wouldn’t stop firing. Kush dropped into a ball on the dirt, at which point, the popping sounds of released carbon dioxide and ammunition stopped, at least for a moment.
Watts came over, yelling at Karinger. Kush tried, and failed, to hide his crying. After a while, Watts offered his hand to help him off the ground.
Karinger said, “Why the hell didn’t you shoot me, Kush?”
Watts said he’d had enough for the day. He was going home, and Kush wanted to join him. But as Watts got on his bike to leave, Karinger told Kush to stay for one more game.
“You’re going to win,” Kush said. “Why would I even play?”
“You’ve got to start thinking different,” Karinger said. He’d taken off his mask now and was jabbing his fingers into the side of his head. He had the bright blond hair of an albino, and he’d recently had it shaved to military length. Sometimes Kush imagined Karinger with blue eyes, but now that Karinger was staring directly at him, lecturing him, they were clearly hazel. “Stop saying everything that goes through your head, Kush. The first step in being tough is convincing people you’re tough. Including yourself. You’ve got to pretend you’re tougher than you are, keep some shit to yourself. This is what not being a pussy is all about.”
He went on to explain the rules of this new two-person game: essentially, chicken. They’d each get one shot at the other person from a certain distance before taking a long step closer. Then they’d shoot again, and step closer. And so on. The first person to quit the game lost.
“Thanks for the pep talk,” Kush said. “But I’m going to pass.”
“Fine,” Karinger said. “You can get two shots for every one of mine. You want to get me back, don’t you?”
Gingerly, Kush rubbed the welt on his hand and thought of how gratified he’d feel to give a matching one to Karinger. So he walked to his spot in the desert, thirty feet from where Karinger stood. Then he hollered, “Are there any rules?”
“You shoot twice, I shoot once. No need for masks” — he tossed his aside — “because there’s no face shots. And no ball shots. Cool?”
“I won’t aim for your face, but you should probably wear your mask. I can’t promise anything.”
“No masks,” Karinger called out. “It’ll force you to focus your aim.”
Kush tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. The heat had the back of his tongue scaly. He aimed his gun and shot, missing wide left. His second shot missed high.
Karinger’s first shot hit Kush on the left wrist.
“Shit!” Kush said, grabbing the pain.
They stepped closer. This round, Kush’s first shot missed again, but his second hit Karinger in the right shin.
“Good,” Karinger called out, shaking his leg.
By the time they were standing ten feet away from each other, Kush had stopped feeling the pain. He found himself laughing wildly every time he was hit, just as Karinger did. As they stepped closer together, Kush imagined their bodies merging. The silly idea had an odd heaviness in his mind, and allowed him to feel a tickling pinch where the pain ought to have been.
When they got within point-blank range, they aimed at each other’s chests.
“It’s a draw,” Karinger said, still laughing. “See, man? It’s a draw.”
Their laughter quieted down. For three, four seconds, their eyes met. Then, at the same time, they pulled their triggers.
There it is, Kush thought, doubled over in the desert. There’s the pain again.
They hadn’t merged after all.
I still hadn’t responded to Jackie (Connolly) Karinger. Her email stayed open on my computer — I must have read it thirty times. Looking around the room, I saw on the edge of the coffee table the three books I’d impulsively purchased from Lloyd Alcero. In an effort to buy more time, I went over to inspect them: Understanding the War on Terror, After 9/11: America’s Global War, The Muslim One: A Memoir.
I turned the third book over. The author’s black-and-white photograph: a young woman wearing a hijab. Chin down, she looked up at the camera. Her thin eyebrows tensed, giving her face the severe expression of a distraught mother, but she couldn’t have been much older than I was. Seeing her photograph reminded me of someone I’d known (“known” is a strong word) in high school. For all I knew, she could have been the same woman. Upon checking the bio, however, I learned that the author was raised not in California, but in Florida, where she’d foiled her uncle’s plot to set o a car bomb at an amusement park. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling — due, I suspected, to the timing of it all — that this author happened to be someone whose life was perpendicular to mine, and that, if I were to read her book, I’d learn something about myself at that intersection.
She’d written the memoir, strangely, in the third person. It began: “For the first sixteen years of her life, Adila Atef spoke with a throaty, confident voice.” By the time I reached the epilogue, I’d forgotten the book was not, in fact, a novel. The veracity of the story was re-revealed to me in those final pages, where the author converted to the first person:
Contrary to the beliefs of many — friends included — I wrote this book in the third person not for its therapeutic or distancing effects, but because it represents more accurately the way in which I remember these events unfolding, more like a film than a diary. The I can’t exist in more than one place at a time, and I am here, now. Who, then, was that other Adila?
Nowhere in her story was the experience of the girl I’d been aware of in high school. She and the author were not, I accepted, one and the same.
Of hundreds of girls at Antelope Valley High, only one wore a headscarf.
She was two years ahead of Karinger, Kush, and Watts, and so they rarely crossed paths. The only reason they knew of her was because, after the terrorist attacks, she’d been harassed in the main quad at lunch, and the local media came to produce a special report. Peter Thorpe, local newscaster, along with a microphone-tethered cameraman, interviewed students on campus. He asked questions some in the community later agreed were loaded, including whether or not this girl’s wearing a headscarf to school was in any way disrespectful, “considering the circumstances.”
Kush and Watts — along with about fifty other kids — vied for a spot in the shot’s background, making faces and flipping the camera the bird. By the time they realized Karinger was being interviewed, Kush and Watts had missed the entire conversation.
“He took my name, age, and class,” Karinger said when he rejoined his friends. “I’ll be on TV at seven o’clock tomorrow night.”
And so they made plans to watch the special at Karinger’s place, a brand-new two-story tract home on the west side of town. His mother, Linda, had won the house in a lottery, one of a thousand she entered every year. She, along with Roxanne — Karinger’s twelve-year-old sister — joined Kush and Watts in front of the TV, between multiple roaming cats. The three boys sat on the center couch. Linda took the love seat, and Roxanne, stomach and elbows down, lay flat on the carpet in front of them, chin on her hands. She wore a pair of little denim shorts, fraying at the ends. More than once, Kush caught Watts following the thin white lines of her legs to their meeting place.
The show started. Peter Thorpe spoke to the camera, live in-studio, against a green-screened photograph of three women in burqas. Kush looked to see that everyone’s attention was on the screen. When it was, he studied the bottoms of Roxanne’s big toes, which were only slightly larger than paintballs. His own sister, Jean, had just moved away for college, and he rarely saw her. He rarely saw any girls — definitely not the bottoms of their toes — so he studied Roxanne’s with the unsexed air of a paleontologist.
The segment shifted to an exterior shot of the high school. A voice-over informed the viewers that he (Thorpe) had recently had the opportunity to speak directly with students. One after the other, kids began making their on-screen claims. (“I have Trigonometry with her, but she never really says anything”; “She seems nice enough, but you never know”; “I’m sure it’s hard for her to be the only one, but her being here is hard for everyone else, too, you know?”)
Finally Karinger, with his white-blond buzz cut and matching, furrowed eyebrows, appeared on the screen, much to the elation of his mother, who placed her hands over her nose and mouth, speaking into them: “My man, my man!” Roxanne turned her neck to look at her brother on the couch above her, as if checking for similarities and differences between him and his on-screen counterpart.
On-screen Karinger began:
“At first I was kind of” — He looked to Peter Thorpe for approval. “— pissed.” He leaned into the microphone. “She definitely brings up a lot of stuff you don’t want to be reminded of.” Now he turned to look at the camera. Kush wondered how many times Karinger had practiced this before — he was a natural. “But that doesn’t mean she can’t wear whatever she wants to wear,” Karinger continued, “because that’s what my dad fought for.” The kids in the background thrashed each other for attention. Kush, meanwhile, looked at Roxanne. He didn’t feel what he thought he ought to feel; he found himself thinking of the shape of Karinger’s legs, trying to remember if they belled out in the calves the way Roxanne’s did. Then he turned to Watts, who looked up from Roxanne’s legs, too, and gave Kush this look, eyebrows-up, that said, I know, huh.
Linda reached out to her son and put her hand on his knee, saying something about the future president. Everyone congratulated Karinger on his performance — even the cats, swarming, seemed pleased with him — because he really did represent how the community felt, disturbed but principled. A bit self-righteous, Kush might’ve added, but at least humane. On their bike ride home that night, Watts and Kush talked about how proud they were of Karinger, admitting surprise. Kush hoped Karinger’s speech would inspire the rest of the school to leave the Muslim girl alone.
Unable to sleep that night, Kush got out of bed and found a pen and a sheet of paper with two lists he hadn’t updated since middle school: one list, “Foster,” for people he admired and another, “Pester,” for people he felt he could do without. On the “Foster” side of the paper, which he’d go on to fold and carry in his Velcro wallet for a number of years, he wrote beside Karinger’s name: As a kid, you like your friends because you have fun together. As you get older, though, you start rooting for them. You want to be proud of them.
Five days after Jackie (Connolly) Karinger’s invitation, Dan Watts called me.
After high school, Watts was the only one of us to stay in the Antelope Valley. While Karinger joined the marines and I moved to Berkeley, Watts worked his way through an EMT program at the local community college, passed the National Registry examination, and now worked as a paramedic. We blamed his schedule for how rarely we spoke (a few times a year). His voice had a coarse, sleepy quality, which some of his recent acquaintances must have mistaken as a consequence of his rigorous job. The voice was, however, the voice he’d always had, and hearing it this day came as a warm comfort.
He asked whether or not I had plans on the eighteenth of April, the date of the baptism. When I told him about Jackie’s email, he sounded relieved: “I didn’t want to bring it up in case you weren’t invited.”
“Wait,” I said. “What would you have done if I didn’t know about the baptism? What if I’d asked what was so important about April eighteenth?”
“Huh. I didn’t think that far ahead.”
I asked about him — was he going to be there?
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I’m the godfather.”
A strange, embarrassing jealousy came to me.
“What about you?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. I told him I changed my mind every hour.
“I can’t get the thought out of my head that he wouldn’t have wanted me there.”
Watts laughed. “Probably not. But isn’t that your cue?”
“Do you remember that Muslim girl in high school?” I said. “The one they did the TV special on?”
“Yeah, for sure. Did you guys meet up? Wait, are you with her now?”
“No, no,” I said. “I’ve just been thinking of Karinger’s interview. Where he shocked us with his sheer humanity. Remember that?”
“Yeah,” Watts said. “Too bad it didn’t make a difference.”
I’d remembered Karinger’s self-righteous but heroic speech, but I’d forgotten the rest of the story. Less than a week after the televised special, the girl in the headscarf was enjoying the lunch her mother had packed for her that day (a peanut butter sandwich, of all things), when she was pinned down by a group of six female seniors, who proceeded to spray-paint her white scarf red and blue. She rolled up to avoid both the fumes and the beating she presumed (understandably but incorrectly) was coming. According to Peter Thorpe’s follow-up report, she elected to be homeschooled for the remainder of high school. The six girls, who’d each been handed a five-day suspension, were initially also banned from attending senior prom. After a community petition gathered enough signatures, this additional ruling was reversed.
“I really believed Karinger’s speech was going to convince everyone on campus to leave her alone,” I said. “I went home that night and wrote this extremely sentimental note about growing up. About being proud of your friends, as opposed to just enjoying their company.”
“Sounds like you,” Watts said. “You still carry that note around, don’t you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not that sentimental.”
The truth was, of course, I’d been even more sentimental. Years after I’d written it, after what turned out to be our last conversation, I slipped the note into Karinger’s backpack. My hope was that he’d stumble upon it after I’d gone home, understand its significance, and return to me, his best friend, inspired to make me proud again.
“I don’t know,” said Watts. “I bet you still have it.”
“Tell me about the baby,” I said. “Tell me about your godson.”
But then my phone pinged, and I saw the name — LLOYD BOOKSTORE — on the screen. I told Watts I’d call him back in a few minutes, but I ended up talking with Lloyd for a long time, an hour and a half, and meeting up with him that night at a bar, and by the time I got home, Watts may or may not have been at work or asleep, and I didn’t want to bother him either way, so I turned off my phone and went to bed.
For the boys, there had never been in their midst a girlfriend — a young woman with the power to transform the priorities of a young man fundamentally — until Jackie Connolly pressed her cornsilk lips against the forehead and cheek and mouth of their friend Karinger. This was their junior year: the rattle of 2003, as Karinger would say, the fangs of 2004.
The at Karinger, the only one with a girlfriend, was also the only one of the three who had a car seemed to the others not to be a coincidence. Earlier that year, Linda Karinger had purchased for her son (and, she specified, for her daughter to inherit) a royal blue 1988 Ford Mustang. If it weren’t for the daily rides to and from school — not to mention the joyrides on the weekends — Kush and Watts might have resented Karinger for his “sick ride,” as they, without irony, called it. As it was, Karinger’s successes felt entirely like theirs to share.
Until, of course, along came Jackie Connolly. She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which is to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.
Her blond hair, invariably tied back with a red headband, was as thick as the tails of the horses she tended to on her parents’ farm in Quartz Hill. Regularly she came to school smelling like an old haystack. Although she was thin in the face, arms, legs, and chest, her hips spread against her like the San Gabriel Mountains. They’d had a class together here and there since freshman year, and Kush had met her during a brief stint with the Future Farmers club. But it wasn’t until Karinger, Jackie Connolly, and Watts all had junior English together that she became Karinger’s girlfriend and therefore part of the group. The schedule had it so the end of that particular class meant the beginning of lunch. Kush, enrolled separately in Intro to Literary Criticism, had to cross the width of campus to meet up with the other three, who, by the time he arrived, had invariably begun eating already.
Maybe all young people in love think about their relationship in the future tense, but Karinger and Jackie Connolly vocalized their future. Earlier in the year, the launch of the new war in Iraq promised Karinger at least some action, and he and Jackie constantly hypothesized on their capacity to be a military couple, to have a military family. They even talked unabashedly about money. Getting married before shipping out meant higher pay for Karinger, and possible wedding arrangements were tossed around in the lighthearted, creepy tone of the clinically deranged. They were proud to kiss in public — never raunchily, mouths always closed — and held hands any time they were in reach of each other. Nobody but Kush seemed to mind.
Because she shared the class with Karinger and Watts, Jackie Connolly seemed to think of Watts as Karinger’s best friend, not Kush. (In Kush’s mind, their friendship was an equilateral triangle — a generous thought, since Watts was the newer addition to the group.) Kush would watch Jackie laugh after Watts made a joke, and she’d go on and on until she snorted and — in some particularly egregious cases — cried. Meanwhile, after Kush told a joke of similar quality, she’d offer only a bit of flattery, this eyes-averted chuckle and smile. He found himself simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of this girl — this pallid, manure-shoveling girl.
Once, on a violently windy Saturday afternoon in November, Karinger backed out of plans to head to the paintball field, citing Jackie as his reason. Instead of riding in the smooth royal blue Mustang the way they’d envisioned, Kush and Watts pedaled their bikes side by side like children, struggling to push forward into the gusts. At one point, Kush confided in Watts his secret hatred of Jackie Connolly.
He said, with effort: “Don’t tell Karinger, but I want to rip that red headband out of her hair and throw it at her stupid face.”
Watts, who was in better shape and full of breath, said, “Why would I tell Karinger that?”
It occurred to Kush that maybe Watts was the better friend. They didn’t say another word on the subject until Watts brought it up again a few minutes later.
“You got to admit, though,” he said. “She’s got an amazing ass.” They pedaled their undersize bikes like bears at the circus, and the wind carried their laughter.
Lloyd paid the eight dollars for the pitcher of beer between us, so I felt obligated to answer his question — “What’ve you been up to?” — honestly. I told him I’d done nothing for two days but read and think about an old friend named Karinger.
“What kind of name is that?”
“A last name,” I said.
“What’s his first name?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’ll bug me.”
“It was Robert,” I said.
“‘Was’?” Lloyd asked. When I didn’t say anything, he ordered a second pitcher.
I told Lloyd about the invitation to the baptism and about the last time I was in the Antelope Valley — the previous Christmas. I’d taken my mother’s car to drive by Karinger’s house. He was a month dead, but I hadn’t heard.
Even as the sun was setting, I could see Karinger’s house had been repainted a kind of pastel green. The small town I grew up in had become a relatively large suburban city — empty stretches of desert had mostly been replaced by fast-food restaurants and shopping centers. But it was the paint on Karinger’s house that seemed to me like the greatest change. Every other detail — the motion-sensor light fixture on the garage and the royal blue Mustang in the driveway — had remained the same. The perfect sameness of the house had been ruined by an ugly coat of pastel paint. Pulling up closer, I noticed another change: the Mustang’s license plate frame had been replaced with a pink camouflage one labeled USMC GIRL. Karinger’s mother had kept to the deal — this was Roxanne’s car now.
I kept telling Lloyd the story: I drove in the direction of our old paintball field, far enough out of town to be left undeveloped for now. The dark was setting in, and no streetlamps lined the road. I was the only driver in sight, so I took my time. I flashed my high beams at the desert shrubs, searching for the old paint, which must have come off by now in the rain and wind. When I reached what I remembered to be the right place, I pulled the car to the side of the road and felt the sand settle underneath the tires. I left the engine going and kept the headlights on, but got out of the car. A realty sign I’d once shot at still hung there, though nothing had been purchased or built. That far out, the wind came at me in sprints. The chains of the realty sign clamored, and in the east, stars began to show themselves. Across my stomach, I held my arms to stay warm. A scratching noise came over the sound of the engine; a wide and squat tumbleweed had nested under the front fender. “Shit,” I said, getting low to clear it.
Lloyd, born and raised in San Francisco, couldn’t believe I came from a place with tumbleweeds. “In California?” he said. “The next thing you’ll tell me is you’ve got a cowboy hat in the closet.”
“No,” I said dramatically, “just skeletons.”
“Hey,” he said, “Wasn’t that the original title for Brokeback Mountain? Skeletons in Spurs: My Closeted Life on the Range.”
We laughed. Somehow I was having fun talking to him about the same material I’d been agonizing over on my own. The bar lights weren’t dim, and I wasn’t very drunk. The difference had to be Lloyd. I found myself looking for details in his face and throat, the few curls of hair reaching out from the collar of his PUNS ARE FUNS shirt. He was a dork. I hated his green goatee. I liked him.
“I’ve had a crush on you for years,” Lloyd told me once we’d gone back to my apartment. He spoke a lot during sex. Once he’d fallen asleep, I made my way out of bed and to the computer, where I typed the following email:
First: Sorry this has taken so long.
Second: Congratulations on your baby — Watts told me when you first got pregnant, but I haven’t had the chance to congratulate you directly. You always struck me as someone who would be a great mother. Maybe it was how I always imagined you taking care of those horses — I don’t know, I just felt that way.
Third: Last time I was home, I drove by Karinger’s place. This was the day after Christmas. I knew he wasn’t home. I just found myself sitting in my mom’s car out front, staring at his old Mustang in the driveway. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess it’s just to show that the timing of your email was uncanny. I’ve been thinking about the old days a lot lately — about the guys, about our last few days together. I always sort of hoped things would return to normal after we all grew up a bit.
That being said, I will try my best to make it. April 18 at Sacred Heart, 1:00, right? This is the church by the old library? Suddenly I’m really excited to see you again, and everyone. I can’t wait to be back home.
Daley (Kush) Kushner
Every morning when they were picked up for school, and every afternoon when they met in the parking lot to go home, Kush and Watts slid into the backseat of the Mustang. They didn’t do it to treat Karinger like a cabdriver; the passenger seat was already taken. Roxanne Karinger, suddenly thirteen and a high school student herself, sat quietly in the front, hugging the unmistakable freshman mark that is an overstuffed backpack. She rarely spoke, and when she did, she had a soft voice that was overwhelmed by the engine or else the tires and shocks doing their work. For this reason, Karinger, Kush, and Watts hardly noticed her.
Or, at least, that’s what Watts told Karinger. Watts told Kush the truth.
The truth: Watts looked forward every morning to that switch — the car pulling up outside his house, the perfect royal blue door opening, the girl stepping out to let him in. He’d sit directly behind her. Through the space between the headrest and the seat, he’d stare at her white- blond hair and watch the tiny, wild strands of it dance above her head. Later, when the weather turned warm, her sundresses and shorts and tank tops augmented the impact she had on him. But even in those cold mornings of the school year’s middle section, when she’d have on a baggy sweatshirt, maybe, and a pair of dark jeans tucked into boots, just the simple motions involved in her transition from a seated position to a standing one were enough. To young Watts, they seemed to be a characterization of sex itself.
“Plus,” he told Kush, “she’s got an ass almost as nice as Jackie’s, and Jackie’s ass has years on Roxanne’s.”
There were certain moments when Karinger seemed to notice Watts’s attention. Sometimes, while Roxanne worked the lever to unfold her seat, Kush caught Karinger staring at Watts from behind the wheel, as if daring him to leave his eyes in the wrong place for even a second.
Then there was the time The Police’s “Roxanne” came on the radio. Naturally, everyone looked to the girl in the passenger seat. When the chorus hit, the three boys sang along, laughing as they tried to reach that raspy high note. During the last chorus, Watts — caught up in the fun — put his hands on the shoulders in front of him, leaned in, and sang the girl’s name directly into her ear. They were stalled at a red light. Karinger turned and looked straight at Watts. Kush, meanwhile, homed in on the beautiful new dimple in Karinger’s locked jaw, which he’d never noticed before. For his part, Watts did the only three things he could: He removed his hands from the girl, leaned back in his seat, and looked to Kush for help. The light changed, but Karinger didn’t move. He just kept staring at Watts. In her softest voice, Roxanne told her brother to go. He didn’t move. A driver behind them honked his horn. It took another “go” from his sister before Karinger turned and put the accelerator, finally, to use.
Kush was still thinking of that dimple when he took a seat in his favorite class, Intro to Literary Criticism. Dealing with “advanced” students as she was, Ms. DeGroff felt free to curse in her lectures, speak openly about sexuality in the books she assigned, and grade essays with the bluntness of a loved one. In other words, she treated her students as if they were already in college. Although a few hypersensitive kids had filed complaints over the years, none of them dealt Ms. DeGroffa real consequence. Most students, she’d found, preferred being treated like adults.
So it was in this state of mind that Ms. DeGroff made what turned out to be — in Kush’s mind, at least — her famous remark. In the course of discussing “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in response to a student who deemed the defiant Bartleby a “jerk,” Ms. DeGroff told the class that sometimes, the world could use more Bartlebys. “Soon,” she said, “some of you will be asked to fight this illegal war, for example.” And God, she went on, would she be proud of any of them who said to the administration, “I would prefer not to.”
The aside took fewer than twenty seconds of the class. But as soon as Ms. DeGroff said it, Kush and the other students looked around at each other with despair. Ms. DeGroff must have known the trouble she’d just put herself in, because immediately upon saying it, she cleared her throat and changed the topic.
One of the students must have passed the news on to his or her mother; a petition began. Facing the possibility of another visit from Peter Thorpe and his cameraman, the school’s principal suspended Ms. DeGroff.
But her removal couldn’t erase from Kush’s mind the perceived lesson, the idea that pride, in certain cases, wasn’t reserved for those who went along with the plan. Kush started checking out certain books at the library and reading political articles on the internet. He attended an empty Sunday morning screening of Fahrenheit 9/11. He read as much Orwell as he could get his hands on, searching always for contemporary analogies. He began scoffing internally at the yellow ribbon-shaped magnets adorning every fender in town. Seeing Berkeley come up in so many of the articles, he started to dream of going to school there. He felt as though he’d been born in the wrong era, that he should have been alive in the 1960s and ’70s, and listened to nothing but sad music from that time — Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne. For a kid who wanted to travel back in time, going to Berkeley for college seemed to be the best option. He had some time to apply. Until then, all he had were Karinger and Watts, so he expressed his opinions only in his personal journal, safe for the future, and kept his mouth shut around his friends.
Which is why — even though he’d grown tired of the sport a while ago, he’d begun to see it as a fetishization of war — when Watts asked him for another game of paintball in the desert, Kush agreed. Again they rode their bikes, just the two of them. On the ride out they didn’t speak, and the only sounds came from the gravel squirming under their tires. As they approached their spot in the desert, Kush and Watts realized they’d already played their last game.
All around them in the dirt were the chevron tracks of farm equipment. The trenches had been filled. The walls had been leveled. The plaid sofa, the mirror, the piles of tire shreds — all of it had been hauled off. In fact, the only evidence of its being the right place at all was the polychromatic paint freckling some of the Joshua trees. At the side of the road, a newly embedded realty sign swung in the wind.
“Well,” said Watts, turning his bike about- face. “Paintball had to end sometime.”
It was what had to be said, but Kush hated to hear it. He understood the end of paintball to be the evaporation of the final strings of glue holding him and his friends together. He said, “I have to get out of this place.”
Without aiming his gun, he took a quick shot at the realty sign.
Lloyd asked me to swing by the bookstore, said he had a gift. When I arrived, he hugged me and told me to stay put. Then he trotted off to the back of the store, out of sight. When he returned, he was wheeling behind him a purple carry-on bag. “I’m taking you up on your offer,” he said, beaming.
“I never offered to travel with you,” I said, honestly confused.
Lloyd laughed. “No, stupid. It’s my novel. I printed out a copy for you.”
“Oh,” I said, taking another look at the carry-on. “Oh my.”
“Printing it cost me, like, forty-five dollars.” Of this he seemed proud.
“Well, thanks,” I said, and took hold of the retractable handle. I wondered if he expected me to pay him back.
“Don’t worry about line- edits,” he said as I was leaving. “Just give me your gut reaction on the big- picture level.”
When I got home, I opened the bag and pried apart the manuscript to the last page, to see the page number — 1423. I closed the manuscript, zipped the bag, and wheeled the luggage to the corner of my apartment, next to the DustBuster.
Not too long ago, I would’ve left the damn thing in the corner and rolled my eyes every time I happened to look over at it. In college I’d been surrounded by rich, comfortable kids who called themselves writers, and the prospect of getting into a relationship with the most flamboyant member of that self- assured bunch would’ve made me puke. But now I looked at that purple carry-on luggage, imagined the box of pages inside, and felt something like admiration. Someone else might’ve seen a carry-on with torn fabric and muddy wheels. But I looked at that bag in the corner and saw a man’s secrets — his ideas, his grievances, his memories, and his fantasies. I looked at that bag and fell a little bit in love.
Because of that “substantial pay increase” Karinger kept referring to about the marines, he and Jackie finalized arrangements for a small wedding to be held at the Connolly farm in April of senior year. Kush and Watts shared the title of best men.
Karinger’s mother helped with the preparations. In the lawn between the house and barn, she carried two fistfuls of poppies, which she’d picked in the fields northwest of town. “I know, I know — I’m a criminal,” she said, placing the orange state flowers here and there around the makeshift altar. The pine panels of the stable — the heads of two horses peering over — provided the backdrop.
A bald priest with an old man’s sense of humor had come out to the barn. At one point, he turned to the horses behind him and said, “If you object, say neigh.” The children and the parents encouraged him; the wedding parties rolled their eyes.
Beer and champagne were served to the adults — a label extended for the day to include the newlyweds — and soda and juice had been provided for the rest. Kush held a can of Coke at the serving table, and found himself in a conversation with Linda Karinger and the priest. The bride and groom were off chatting with the father of the bride, along with the aunts and uncles. Children alternately chased each other in the grass and petted the noses of the horses. Kush couldn’t spot Watts.
The priest asked if Kush aimed to join the marines, too.
“Oh,” said Kush, thinking of the antiwar articles he could recite. “No, not me.”
“This one is on his way to college,” said Linda lovingly.
“A word of advice,” said the priest. “Universities are good for the mind, but don’t let them train you to neglect God.”
Kush put down his Coke and said he had to use the restroom. Could they point him in the right direction?
Kush admired the land and the horses, but the house itself was relatively small and unspectacular. Quickly he found the hallway to the left, following his directions. Counting one, two, three doors on the right, he grabbed the doorknob.
“Occupied,” came a voice — the unmistakable, drowsy voice of his friend Watts.
“It is I,” Kush said.
Then came a moment of silence.
“Might be in here for a while,” Watts said.
“Take your time,” Kush said. “I don’t really have to use it. I’m just trying to get away from that priest for a bit.”
Another pause. This one lasted longer than the first. Kush would have to be the one to break the silence this time. With his fingertips he drummed on the door. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Shit,” said Watts, as if he’d just made a decision. “You have to promise me something. You promise?”
“What am I promising?”
“You have to promise not to mention what you’re about to see. Ever.”
“Did you have an accident?” Kush said, laughing.
“Will you just promise?”
“Sure,” Kush said. “I promise, I promise, I promise.”
The door shot open, hitting Kush in the shoulder. Out rushed Roxanne Karinger, fixing her dress on her way down the hall. Watts stayed in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet in his suit, buckling his belt. “Promise me again.”
Two hundred pages into his novel, I recognized a story I’d told Lloyd at the bar. Three teenaged boys (minor characters all of them, recently added to the book) sit on the hood of a car, talking. They’re parked at the beach (not the desert), but the conversation is, more or less, one I’d had with Karinger and Watts almost six years earlier.
The boy heading to the military tells the other two he doesn’t want to have a kid until after the wars are over. The boys have just graduated high school, and they’re still wearing their caps and gowns. Their thighs are pressed together on the car while they pass around a bottle of whiskey one of them has stolen from his parents’ liquor cabinet. The military kid doesn’t want to get killed — or worse — thus forcing his child to make up stories about him. He confesses that he himself has been making up stories about his own father — Willem — for years, namely that he saw combat. He hadn’t. In fact, Willem had been struck with testicular cancer, and remained Stateside for the entirety of Desert Storm. A few years later, Willem left his wife and kids, and was living, monotesticularly, someplace in Bakersfield.
I called Lloyd and told him to cut the scene. I didn’t care if the novel never got published, if I was the only person in the world who’d make it to page 212 to see it. I wanted Karinger’s story — and his father’s — out of the book.
“I’ll cut it, sure,” Lloyd said. “But, you know I didn’t mean to offend you. This is how the world works. People are just amalgamations of stories. When one person becomes close to another, all those combined stories merge and create new stories. It’s not appropriating so much as evolving. Do you see what I mean?”
“Just, cut it. Please.”
And he did. But seeing Karinger’s story in print — even though the pages were only in a Kinko’s box — made falling asleep impossible. I kept rereading Karinger’s fear, how he didn’t want his kid to grow up without a real story of his dad.
I’d already told Jackie I’d be at the baptism. But I imagined holding that baby, knowing that in my arms I’d be carrying nothing short of the incarnation of my friend’s biggest fear.
So I sent the following note:
You know I’ve always been one dramatic motherfucker. I’m sorry. I just need you to tell me if Karinger would have wanted me there. Please, please be truthful.
Being the only married couple on campus brought the newlyweds some notoriety. At lunch, girls approached and asked Jackie to show off her ring. One, clearly a freshman, apologized for interrupting, but she had to know, swiping at her black bangs, what did it feel like to be in love?
The new, shared living arrangement, combined with the newfound attention at school, made it difficult for Kush to spend any time alone with Karinger. Karinger didn’t even drive his friends to school anymore. Watts started driving his dad’s small pickup to school, and Kush started riding with him.
Roxanne Karinger found her own carpool to join, but every now and then, in a moment of crisis, she’d jog up to the truck in the parking lot after school let out and ask Watts for a last-minute lift home. She’d sit between Watts and Kush, keeping her hands between her knees to take up as little room as possible. Kush dreaded these days for the awkward quiet she brought on. Thankfully, graduation was approaching, and the opportunities for this particular brand of discomfort were quickly fading.
On a Friday morning early in May, Watts called Kush to let him know he’d woken up with something nasty — not really, but in case anyone asked — and he’d be staying home. Kush resolved to take his bike like the old days. When school let out, he worked at the lock on his bike near the parking lot. He was adjusting his helmet when he heard Roxanne’s voice call his name.
“Where’s Watts?” she said.
She made the descending hum of disappointment. “I was hoping he’d give me a ride home. My friend bailed on me.”
“I can sympathize,” Kush said. “Here. Why don’t you take my bike? I’ll pick it up next week when your brother’s around.”
“No, it’s all right. I’ll just walk.”
Kush debated saying it, but did: “It’s a long walk. I’ll go with you.”
Roxanne moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. Her brother had been training — lifting weights and running miles every morning — and had bulked up. Roxanne, with her hair pulled to one side, exposing the thin line of her clavicle, looked like a younger, long-lost version of him. “You don’t have to,” she said.
“A long walk with a friend is better than a short bike ride alone,” he said.
“You’re strange,” she said, not unkindly. She started walking. Kush, bike at his side, jogged a bit to catch up.
Their dynamic changed now that they were alone, now that they were on foot instead of in a car. Talking was easier at this slower pace, in this open environment. Kush guided the bike next to him and thought about how little he knew of Roxanne, despite having watched her, basically, grow up. He told her so.
“I’m a shy person, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t like people who talk about themselves.”
“Fair enough,” said Kush. “Let’s talk about other people.”
“Ha,” she said.
He wanted to ask about Watts, about whether or not their rendezvous at the wedding was a one- time thing. Instead he asked how she felt about Jackie Connolly.
“Jackie is my sister now,” she said. “I love her.” After a pause: “I know you don’t.”
Kush offered a self-conscious laugh. “What makes you say that?”
“My brother knows you hate her. You told Watts you hate her. Something about throwing her red headband at her ass?”
Kush felt his grip tighten around the bike handles. “I said ‘face,’ not ‘ass.’ Watts was the one talking about her ass. Damnit. He promised he wouldn’t tell.”
“You should get to know her,” Roxanne said. “She’s actually pretty amazing. She’s teaching me to ride horses this summer.”
“I’m not interested in getting to know Jackie better.”
“Because you’re jealous of her?”
Kush felt his throat and stomach compromise to meet halfway. “Jealous?”
“Look,” Roxanne said. “I’ve known you since I was nine, Daley Kushner. Robert and Dan and Jackie can’t say that, can they? In some ways, I know you better than they do.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” Kush said. He could feel tears welling in his throat, and how he was holding them back, he couldn’t say.
“Don’t worry,” Roxanne said. “I’d never tell anyone. Not even if you ratted on Watts and me. But you still shouldn’t. Because my brother would kill him. No joke.”
Kush wanted to thank Roxanne, but doing so would prove she was right about him. Instead he said, “Why should I care if Karinger kills Watts?”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said, gently kicking the bike’s front tire. “You guys can get over a fight. What you can’t get over is a death.”
And so Kush kept Watts and Roxanne’s secret, all the way through graduation. Karinger, Kush, and Watts donned caps and gowns, walked across a makeshift stage, and shook hands with administrators and teachers they would never see again. Their mothers aimed cameras at them from different angles. In most of the pictures, Jackie (Connolly) Karinger squatted in front of the three boys. Kush, an honor student, was the only one draped in gold. The others wore blue.
Later that night, while most of their peers found their way to house parties across town, and while Jackie went home to the farm, the three boys ransacked their parents’ liquor cabinets and headed to the desert.
The winds had eased up and the night air held on to the heat of the day, so the boys tore off their T-shirts and sat on the hood of the Mustang in nothing but shorts, flip-flops, and graduation caps. Karinger sat flanked by his friends. They passed between themselves a glass bottle of whiskey, which threw golden shapes of moonlight over their thighs. The desert appeared orange here and there in the headlights of the car.
“They’re going to take this all out one day,” Karinger said, drunk. He waved the bottle, motioning toward the undeveloped land surrounding them. “Who’s gonna take care of it all?”
“You sound like Kush,” Watts said.
Karinger laughed. “I’m serious, though. Who will take care of … my car?” He pressed his palm against the royal blue hood between his legs, holding on to the bottle with his other hand. Kush reminded him to pass it over.
“Your sister,” said Kush. “It’ll be hers soon.”
“But who will take care of my sister? Not you.” Karinger grudgingly handed the bottle to Kush. “You are out of here, Berkeley.”
“Don’t worry,” said Kush. “Ol’ Watts here will keep an eye on her.” He took a drink. “Won’t you, Watts?”
“Give me that,” said Watts. He mouthed something to Kush, pleading. Then he said, “Karinger, your sister is my sister.”
“Ha,” said Kush.
“And you, Watts — who will take care of you?” Karinger patted Watts’s floppy curls. “And who will take care of you?” He looked to Kush. “And my mom,” he said. “And Jackie?”
“Everyone here is going to be golden,” Kush said. “The question is, who will take care of you?” He meant it in a funny way, jabbing his finger into Karinger’s impressive arm to loosen up the conversation. But Karinger seemed to be mulling the question over with sincerity. They were quiet, all three of them, for a long while.
Karinger pushed himself to his feet. His graduation cap fell to the dirt. Out of Watts’s hand he took the bottle. He wound up and threw it with a howl as far as he could into the dark. The sound of the bottle shattering hung between them.
A good amount of time passed. Watts cleared his throat. “That bottle,” he said. “It was empty, right?”
The three of them sent their laughter into the world, into and beyond the reach of the Mustang’s lights.
Don’t apologize for being dramatic. I don’t know how it is for you academic types, but for us regular people, some situations get a pass.
You asked if he would have wanted you here. Let me tell you a story. Not the last time he was home, but the time before that, we got into an argument. It was something stupid — I can’t even remember. Maybe it was what to have for dinner? What day to invite my parents over? Anyway, he’d come back this time a little different. He never told me what had changed, but I could tell by the way he talked to me — like he didn’t really care either way about anything — that something was off . I brought it up to him that night. I took off his shoes and set them next to his duffel bag, which he’d been looking through, at the side of the bed. Then we were in bed in bed — forgive the details, but for some reason I don’t care if you know — and again, he didn’t respond like he usually did. So I asked him again, what’s wrong? Well, you know him. He wouldn’t say a thing sober, so I got up and poured him a glass of whiskey, and then another, and another. It was winter, and the whiskey warmed him up. He kept saying so. Finally I asked him one more time, what was wrong? Had anything happened out there that changed him? No, he said, not one thing in particular. That only happened in movies, he said. He put his head down on the pillow and started talking and talking, everything from his dad to the idea of having a baby to what he would do if he wasn’t in the marines. You name it, he talked about it. And just when I thought he was about to fall asleep, he said something so sad and sweet I picked up a pen and jotted it down. He said (I’m reading it right off the scrap of paper): “Might not be rooting for me anymore, but I’m still rooting for him.”
For some stupid reason I thought he was talking about his dad. He got upset and said I was wrong. Then he wouldn’t say anything else, but I always figured it was you he was talking about. Who else could it be?
My point is you’re not the only dramatic one. But, yes, to answer your question truthfully. He would have wanted you here — yes, yes, yes.
Jackie (Connolly) Karinger
From the patio, Linda Karinger called into the house for help. She’d need the outdoor furniture set up before noon, and would someone please get on that while she started the coals going in the grill? She wore a camouflaged apron with white block letters across the front: FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.
Watts, followed by Kush, came outside. Karinger and Jackie would be arriving any minute, followed shortly thereafter by the Connollys. Tomorrow, Karinger would head south to Camp Pendleton to transform into the man he would be for the rest of his life. This was his going-away party.
Again Linda poked her head into the house through the sliding glass door, careful not to let a cat escape: “Roxanne! Get off the dang phone and come help!”
Roxanne put her palm over the mouthpiece and said, “I’m on vacation.”
“Not today, you’re not. Go help the boys set up the chairs.”
As Roxanne came outside, Watts and Kush were fitting their hands underneath the surface of the patio table. They carried it to the center of the backyard’s lawn. The day happened to be the hottest of the year — people were calling it 108 — and although the furniture was cheap and lightweight, dark circles of sweat pressed through the boys’ shirts in the chest and back like giant thumbprints.
The doorbell rang and Roxanne, easing a folded chair onto the grass, went to answer the door. Linda squeezed a bottle of lighter fluid over the coals, and a ball of fire burped out.
Karinger had arrived. There were moments of symbolic importance in life, it seemed to Kush, just as there were moments of symbolic importance in literature. He remembered that day in the desert with Watts, finding their old paintball field dismantled. That was an example of a moment that felt symbolically important to him. But real moments existed, too — moments that didn’t represent something, but actually were that something. None of these thoughts appeared in Kush’s mind that day in sentences — they never did. They were only part of a feeling he had — that lame, irrefutable noun — while he watched his friend Karinger on the patio hug the women in his life, one by one: the feeling that this was not symbolically but actually the end of their corresponding lives.
Karinger, adjusting the straps of a backpack, made his way out to the lawn while the girls spoke around the whitening coals. “Thanks for putting this all together,” he told Kush and Watts.
“What’s with the luggage?” Watts asked.
“I know,” Karinger said. “I feel like a freshman again, lugging this thing around. I had some clothes and stufflying around the farm I wanted to bring over here before I left.”
Roxanne came over, dangling a plastic bag of disposable silverware in front of her. “Mom wants you guys to set the table.” She ripped open the plastic bag and split the forks, knives, and spoons among the three of them. “Kush, you seem like a spoons kind of guy. My brother’s definitely the knives. That leaves Watts with the forks, but I’m not sure what that means.” Laughing, she left them to do their job.
By the time the guests arrived, the heat had everyone complaining. Roxanne kept holding her hair up off her neck and saying, “Jesus.” She removed her Dodgers cap and placed it underneath the spigot. Once the hat was filled, she twisted it back onto her head, letting the water crash over her face and shoulders. She returned to her seat, encouraging everyone else to follow suit. Kush watched as Watts made a concentrated effort not to stare at her wet shirt.
As flies swarmed the leftover coleslaw and chicken bones on plastic plates, Linda told her son to open his gifts. They were gags, most of them — porno magazines and tiny glass bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Smirnoff vodka, none of which Karinger could take with him to boot camp — but some gifts were given in earnest: a pocket Bible from his parents-in-law; a single-sheet list of relevant addresses from his wife; and a few Polaroid pictures of young mom and kids, in the trailer they lived in before the house, from his mother. Everyone laughed when they were supposed to laugh, and looked to Linda — face red with sunburn and emotion — during the sweeter moments. Gone were the complaints over the heat.
Kush watched the party from a distance, from a canopied patio swing at the far end of the yard. Initially he’d taken the seat to get some shade. As the party wound down, however, and as the in- laws began to say their good- byes, Kush remained there, rocking gently, alone. Over and over again, he thought about what he wanted to say to Karinger.
Eventually, it was just the three boys in the driveway. The sky turned dark, and crickets sang in the hedges. In the white light of the fixture at the rim of the garage, the three boys drank from the tiny gift bottles of liquor, smuggled in Karinger’s backpack, which he set down at the driver’s side of Watts’s truck. “Take these, too,” Karinger told them, meaning the porn.
Watts took another bottle from the bag and unloaded the magazines, stacking them in the cab of his truck. “So,” he said, slamming shut the truck’s door. “Th is is it?”
“Those should last you a while,” Karinger said.
Watts said he didn’t mean the porn; he meant “this” — he moved his hand in a circle between the three of them to elaborate.
“I’ll be back for a little after boot camp,” Karinger said. “We’ll get together again before I ship out.”
Kush said, “I’ll probably be up north for orientation, I think.”
Karinger nodded. “Well, I guess this is it.”
“For a while, anyway,” said Watts. He finished what was left in his mini-bottle and tossed it into the bed of the truck, bringing on the heavy sound of thick glass hitting metal.
“Who knows?” Kush said. “Forever, maybe.”
Karinger and Watts laughed. Watts said, “Kush, why do you always have to be such a dramatic motherfucker?”
Near the backpack, Kush took a knee and grabbed the last mini- bottle, which he opened and finished in one swallow. When he stood, he said, “Karinger, you always said I needed to be more decisive, right?”
“‘Indecision is death,’ ” Karinger said, quoting somebody.
“This isn’t me being dramatic.”
“Tell me, man. What ever it is you want to tell me, tell me.”
“This war is criminal,” Kush said, feeling as though the cold rush of truth came through him. Karinger turned his face and laughed it off. “Is it, now.”
“I mean,” said Kush, “you’re not dumb enough or sadistic enough to go kill people for money, are you?”
From Watts: “Kush, you drunk asshole. The war is way more complicated than —”
“If you say one more word,” Kush said, turning to Watts, “I’ll tell him something else I should’ve told him a long time ago.”
“You’ve got a lot of growing up to do,” said Karinger. “A younger me would’ve knocked you out already.”
“You’re still a younger you!” Kush said, shouting now. “That’s the point! If you die in that war, it’s a younger you that’ll die, and for what? Absolutely nothing!”
The power Kush felt just a minute ago had already begun to fade. Now he felt something less heroic, but he’d gone too far to pull back. Seeing no other option to try to regain that power, he wound up and threw the empty miniature bottle at Karinger as hard as he could. To his surprise, the bottle hit its target, glancing off Karinger’s enormous shoulder and breaking apart against the driveway.
Karinger looked at the bits of glass, which refracted the motion sensor’s light here and there against the side of Watts’s truck and across his own shadow. He stepped forward and planted his forehead against Kush’s. This was the closest they’d been since their game of chicken in the desert four years earlier. Kush braced for a punch until he heard Karinger laugh.
“Let’s not pretend this is political,” Karinger said. “I know why you really want me to stay.”
He raised his finger to his mouth. “Go ahead, Kush. Kiss me.” Karinger closed his eyes. He cartoon- puckered his lips.
And for the first time in a long time, Kush acted without thinking. He kissed Karinger with his eyes closed. With his mouth he held on to Karinger’s fat lower lip as long as he could, and felt the cracks at the center from the dry, searing summer winds. When Karinger seemed to let him have the kiss, every fantasy Kush had tried so diligently to ignore over the years occurred to him at once. The result was a magnificent barrage of embarrassments, sentimental on the one hand, pornographic on the other. Kush never figured out which was more pathetic: the times he’d daydreamed of skipping town with Karinger to San Francisco or New York or Paris, or the nights he’d spent alone in his bedroom after a day of paintball, licking from between his fingers his own semen, and imagining the taste — like a desert plant, leafy and hot — was his friend’s. Either way, it was in his mouth now, the withered taste of shame itself. It had been rooted in his memory, but now shot from his brain to the wet nib of his tongue, which pressed between the small valleys in Karinger’s bottom row of teeth. And before Karinger stepped back and threw his fist so perfectly into Kush’s chest that the impact felt to Kush less like a punch than a tree breaking a horrendous fall, Karinger kissed him back. Hadn’t he? He seemed to have kissed Kush back, a brief but beautiful hold on Kush’s mouth, so forceful and lovely that Kush, after the punch, felt not only the immense pain in his chest but also, in his top lip, a kind of swelling.
Now Kush sat upright in the driveway, one hand pressed against the thudding plate in his chest, the other behind him, for balance, against an oil stain.
Above, Karinger picked up his backpack and, fitting his arms into the straps, said, “Everyone, including you, will be happier once you’re in Berkeley. It’s where you belong.”
Kush, still struggling to take in air, said, more deliberately and honestly than he’d said anything in his life, “Go die for nothing, asshole. I hope you do.”
Then Karinger spat on the ground, walked the path to the front door, and disappeared.
“I should have told him about Roxanne,” Watts said on the drive home. His hands on the wheel were shaking. “We could’ve avoided all that back there. I should’ve been the guy getting punched.” Now he was crying, swiping his nose and eyes with the back of his hand. At a red light, he twisted his fists over his eyes, and for the first and only time, Kush felt he wasn’t the weakest of the three.
The day before the baptism, Lloyd and I were at a sidewalk café eating crepes with strawberries and Nutella. We’d seen each other every day for six weeks. No one would argue six weeks is a long period of time for a relationship. But look: We were sitting on one side of a small circular table on a sidewalk in Oakland, California, under a cloudless, bright sky. A mother pushing two babies in a double-seat stroller passed us and — when Lloyd licked his thumb and wiped chocolate from my face — smiled a benevolent smile. Six weeks was not separate from ten years, I felt, or any bit of my life. Six weeks, in some ways, was everything.
“So,” Lloyd said, “I was thinking. Maybe I can come along with you tomorrow. See your hometown, meet the gang. Maybe even meet that mysterious Armenian mother of yours.”
Just then, the blaring sound of sirens wailed by, and I imagined Watts driving his ambulance around the Antelope Valley. He was a man now — a man who saved lives, I was proud to say. For whatever reason, though, I couldn’t think of Karinger as the husband and father he turned out to be. I didn’t think of him as a man. I felt awful admitting that. I tried to picture him fighting that war out there in a climate not unlike what we’d been used to, and all I could see was the boy in that gas mask, shooting his gun at other boys, frightened boys crouching behind a sofa. Hostile, hostile fire, small-arms fire, Kandahar Province — I had these bits of information, but none that helped me imagine the scene of his death. So I thought instead of that silly note I wrote and carried with me for so long, slipping it into his backpack as I took that last miniature bottle of liquor in the driveway. I thought of how he must have discovered it at some point, using the same language with his wife later on, and I tried to imagine what he felt while reading my words. How close had he come to calling me? What was it he’d said, about my having to grow up? To have a person so young tell you to grow up …
“Well,” Lloyd said. “I don’t need to come along. But how excited are you to go back home? What do you think it’ll be like, seeing everyone again?”
I could imagine. I would head to the church near the old library a bit early. I’d slip into the back pew and wait for the important players to assemble at the altar — mother, godfather, baby, priest. I’d recognize the bald priest, who would joke with the baby: Come on in, the water’s fine. The churchgoers, perpetually reminded of the unspoken sadness of the day, would appreciate the humor. Our laughter would complement the crying of the baby, who’d be lifted and dipped, lifted and dipped, lifted and dipped until every last prayer was heard.
But I was sitting at an outdoor café in a city on the rise with a man I was beginning to love. I wasn’t about to go back.
Excerpted from Desert Boys by Chris McCormick. Published by Picador. Copyright © 2016 by Chris McCormick. All rights reserved.