The Other Man Print E-mail

Improv_30(Written Spring 2003)

In the top-spinning passage of 30 years—after the sink of high school, one matchstick marriage, and two suddenly grown-and-gone children—I have kept few gifts. Giving up stuff to kids or AmVets just happens, and most of what isn’t given up is misplaced or lost, another sort of unloading. One piece I cannot lose—the maroon scarf that Roxanne knitted and sent me to California with, after I had dropped out of college during the Vietnam War and my draft number came up. I can’t get rid of that scarf, its slapdash clump laying in my closet all these years, sentenced to the pile of its tossing. My fingers still love to lace and heft and tug its six-foot long mesh, purl-knit, purl-knit, a shovel-full of cloth. The scarf feels defiantly alive: its mesh breathes; its weave has yet to unravel; its tensile wholeness might still coil to warm one neck as easily as it might hang another from the rafters.

I was twenty, Roxanne thirty-two. Students at the University of Missouri, we met one night, leaving the palatial library at closing time.

I spied her in the stacks, having heard the slatternly scuff of her flat-bottomed shoes. Outside, she paused (to wait for me?) beside one of two limestone lions guarding the broad three-tiered steps. As I passed by her, I said, "I’ve seen you in the English department, haven’t I?" No, she replied, Psychology. A grad student? Yes, once, but now a secretary. She acted flattered and didn’t turn away.

She had foggy blue eyes, high cheekbones, scant corn-stalk-yellow hair, a short dress, no stockings (a fearlessness, that, in winter), a severe over-bite, and she was thin. More a conditioned thin I would learn. Eating wasn’t important to her; being hungry was. Or, better, the triumphal not eating over-mothering the pedestrian being hungry. And her legs—"What happened?" I pointed at them—covered with sores like pencil eraser tops, stippling the sinks of her ankle bones. She wielded one shin into the lamp’s milky translucence. "Those—are nothing. Mosquito bites," she said with a vanity I liked, offering flesh to the fates.

I marked such things. Marked and sought their characterizing oddity so obsessively that I was bored with my sophomore literature classes. "Chaucer," "Milton," "Restoration Drama" seldom stirred anything in me except doll-like reverence for their archaic verse—never my "to-be"s or "not-to-be"s. Actually I had caught mononucleosis in the fall, was hospitalized, took incompletes in those courses, and slept through the start of the next semester while my mother nursed me back to health in St. Louis. In mid-January I returned to Columbia and, against my brother’s advice, failed to register for classes. I told him I’d hitchhike to California and there, as I’d heard from the heroic stories of draft dodgers, wriggle my way out of the army. In the meantime I was crashing on his couch (to save money) while washing pots and pans in the basement of the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center. My shift started at six a.m.

At first Roxanne seemed lonely, uncommitted. I called her, and she acted distant, as though she was involved with someone but refused to tell me about him. Then, something ignited her to want me. She knocked at my brother’s pad, a small silver purse on a long silver strap hanging from her shoulder. (His eyes got big when he told me a "Roxanne" was at the door.) Later that week she met me with three ribbon-tied roses in the hospital corridor when my shift ended. That was unnerving because I, as the pop songs said, wooed and pursued. The prize won, my reward was her giving in to me.

What I thought the plan was hardly mattered: It wasn’t a week before Roxanne spirited me to bed. She like the deed best in the spooning position because—I can say it now—I think we were afraid of locking eyes with one another for long. What I saw there was a pained but pliant expression, as though, with each thrust, she wanted/she didn’t want me to continue. That look when she would swallow to make the fear and joy go away was, for me, almost too much to endure. And my shock at the aggrieved intimacy on her face was what I thought she was afraid to see on mine.

Post-coitus, she performed a ritual at the bathroom sink. Under a single bulb, bright above a mirror, she would clean herself. She wiped her breasts and underarms and crotch with a hot cloth, and hum a French tune like a young woman shopping for umbrellas in Cherbourg. I stared at her back, her spine a stave of wood bowed slightly by an invisible string. Without turning she would say, "Darling, don’t you think I look French?"

"You most certainly do—darling," I would reply.

All French women, I thought, were petite and a tad whorish; at least, they wanted to be.

In the evenings, I was often restless. I had to get up at five, walk through Columbia’s spotty lamped darkness to work. But before conjugation and sleep was Roxanne’s other ritual. Each night two albums had to play—in their entirety. The Who’s Tommy and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Roxanne mouthed or sang the words to every song with a kind of theatrical despondency in her voice. Between songs, she asked me about my day (as eventful as badminton) and, all the while, bounced the sides of her knees together in an awkward rhythm. Our evenings wore the solemnity of marriage.

Except one night. In the middle of The Who’s "It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy," a knock roused the door. A loud, adamant voice called through—her boss, Dr. Tarn, the 50-plus clinical psychologist, who entered and introduced himself to me as Alastair. I’d heard a lot about Alastair, big man and bigger ego, and the turmoil with his wife. Roxanne had told him that if he ever needed to talk, don’t be afraid to come over. She told me, there would be few things we had to endure together. This would be one. She told me, if he ever shows up . . . and so he has. There’s no question we’re going to accommodate him, and besides he’s not exactly interrupting us. Both sides of both records must go on until they’re done.


Alastair Tarn has a large bullet-shaped bald head with thin, scraggly hair above his ears. He has small eyes and a worried face, seems eager to engage us with what’s on his mind. Under his overcoat, he’s wearing a Cardigan sweater with left-right sewn-on suede patches, lunch boxes of his wife’s devotion. He hands Roxanne his coat, eases off leather gloves. She touches him on the back of his hand.

Under his arm is the Miles Davis album Porgy and Bess.

Tarn takes a seat, and puts the Davis album on his lap as if it’s his prize-winning pie. The cover (I’ve seen it before, heard the music a few times) depicts another lap, which belongs to a trumpet player—the trumpet player even Miles Davis represents—who is clutching his horn. A woman, wearing an elegantly thin gold watch, is tugging at it, trying to get it away from him or to get him to play it. Neither face is shown. (Back then, you understood the jazz album-cover message that matched the music to the record company’s sell: Jazz was a prelude but, more often, an accompaniment to sex, and guys who totted the album around did so believing it would happen.)

The night is cold. Roxanne leaves the room to make tea. And Tarn, with Miles Davis securely under his palms, begins to talk. As though I’m not there.

"I love music," he whispers. The Who’s set is finishing up. Roxanne always gets wispy when Roger Daltrey—the second time through his half-tempo, plaintive "see me, feel me, touch me, be me"—goes up in his exhortative highest register for a big melisma on "fe-ee-eel me." The Beatles are next.

I’m amazed to see Tarn pull from his sweater pocket, a marijuana joint, wrapped in yellow paper. "You don’t mind, do you?" he states more than asks, showing it to me. I’m supposed to—and I do—grok his drift. Another Nixon-era routine: We get high, then get lost in the album. He says, "Roxanne"—to which I’m about to say, no, she won’t mind, when he continues—"is the best secretary I’ve ever had; she is thoughtful and caring and funny; she knows more about what people need than anybody who’s been certified by, God help us, New York University. Roxanne—" I smell an agenda.

He lights up. He takes a puff, then holds it like it’s his to keep. Major ritual violation. He doesn’t know he’s supposed to pass the joint. Instead, he grips it cigarette-style between two fingers, sniffs at the lazy, tribal smoke half-heartedly. Let’s it go in and out of him like a Chesterfield. The end of the stick glows an urgent orange as he tokes. And still he doesn’t offer it.

Roxanne returns with three cups of tea on a tray, serves me mine and Tarn his. Notices him holding-and-toking. Looks at me with a sort of "let him do it" look. He’s my boss. From a basket she retrieves a purple pile of knitting.

Tarn exhales the smoke and asks for an ashtray. There he drops the half-lived stub because he is—potent weed—suddenly stoned.

"Oh, Roxanne." Again he voices her name, now with a mix of beery sexuality and boyish longing. This is when I get his real drift. He’s come here, stupidly, and he’s got to get himself (not us, not me) high, stupidly, since he thinks this is how seduction works. (I don’t fit his plan, so he ignores me.) This is a solo game, like golf, you can hear Tarn thinking. Once he’s blitzed, she’ll accommodate him, re-engage the ingénue from the office whose yeses to memos he senses are yeses to enter her purse. I’m wise to what’s going on.

"Oh, Roxanne."

She’s cool. She’s glanced at me nothing known only between us. Is there anything of that magnitude we share?

Then I remember: This happened before. Almost one year ago. That winter I started seeing Jody, a brunette whose sepia-toned hair blended seductively with the upturned collar of her beaver coat. It was obvious she wanted me to ravish her. But I waited, even said so. I reasoned, if I knew her better, got past the flirtations, consummation would deepen. Why it needed to deepen, why it shouldn’t remain merely physical, meant, well, meant everything. One evening we ended up at her drafty apartment (she wore a thickly ribbed brown turtleneck), when an old friend showed up. Not just any old friend, but Don Borden, the local sad-eyed singer-song-writing phenomenon, who was on tour as James Taylor’s opening act. Jody was smitten by Borden’s Elvis-y half-truth, "in town only for one night, which I wanted to spend with you," tossed out while he sat on her bed with his guitar case leaning against a cantilevered leg. I read the score in his eyes: A musician’s territory was incontestable. Jody requested a song, and saying he’d love to was my cue. No sooner had she hugged me good night and turned from the door than I heard her refer to Taylor’s song, "Fire and Rain"—"When I heard that he wrote that song for Suzanne, the girl who killed herself, I just couldn’t stop crying."

Down the stairs and into the night, I felt a failure. Home, I balled up in bed and shivered. I didn’t hate the musician: I hated myself for not having found a rapture as powerful as the songwriter had.

Jody’s rejection has Tinker-belled Tarn’s presence in Roxanne’s living room. The Beatles are on, and John Lennon, his voice scornfully sarcastic, is urging us, "Come together, right now, over me." I’m staring at Tarn’s head, which has sunk into some moat-like opening between his shoulders. He’s like a stoned gnome. And that eager look in his eye? It’s changed. Instead, there’s the visage of a condemned and penitent man, who’s all set to confess.

"Hey, doc," I say, hoping to derail the revelation, "why don’t you play your record?"

Off comes Abbey Road. Tarn palms the record by its edges to Roxanne who opens the plastic slipcover and he slides it in. Onto the spiraling groove Tarn lifts arm and needle for Porgy and Bess.

The music is loud, brash, opaque, orchestral. Then, it’s suddenly intimate, tidal in its slow, beguiling cadence over which Davis worries one note, then another, then another.

"I used to play the trumpet," Tarn says and, in maudlin commentary, Miles plays along. He staccatos several notes which sound antagonistic to the orchestra, whose rhythm is ranging along like migrating whales. "In college," Tarn continues. "In fact, I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player just like him." Miles lifts a note laconically, he quarrels with the lift a tad, then gives in to its rise. "I was at war once with whether I’d be a jazz player or a psychologist. My doctor father insisted I get my degree. I was undecided. I read Freud by day and played tunes at night. I had it in me to do both. I really did. I was young, ready for the trenches." Miles is quavering a note now, sounding as though he’s uncertain he means that note or the one a bit above, or a bit below, where he’s at. "I just kept college and music going, man.. But inside it was tearing me up. That was when I met him."

Here we go again, I think. The invincible musician. So like a god he is, worshiped by his minions. Worshiped because we aren’t and never will be him.

"The night I met him"—Tarn’s gaze is now interested and warm—"it was in a club, in Detroit. I remember it was a Tuesday and, for some reason, he was off that night, after an incredible weekend at another club where I caught him three nights running, each one completely different. He came in at midnight to catch the last set of some trio, I don’t remember who. God was he cocky. Sunglasses in the dark. A woman on his arm, dripping with gems. The woman was beautiful, that sort of luxuriant, unreal blonde beauty. But she was a throwaway, frivolous in the way that you can speak about her, even disregard her, while she’s right there next to you. He sat at a table right beside me, and I knew I had to introduce myself. So I did. Told him my name. Told him I had seen him at the Green Flame. Told him—this would have been before Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess—that I listened to all his records and they ached with . . . poetry." Here Tarn swallows, pausing on a word that gets caught in his throat. "I’m sure he’d heard that before. But then I told him that I played trumpet, and I wanted to do what he did. He looked at me, sort of quizzically, I don’t know, but—he really looked at me, like who are you. It was, I realized, a ballsy thing to say. I’d gotten onto his radar, and it helped, because then—I was high, maybe four martinis—I just wanted to connect with him. I said, ‘Miles, what am I going to do? I’m a musician and I want to keep playing, but I’m studying to be a psychologist. I can’t do both. What am I going to do?’" Tarn laughs at this; Roxanne mechanically keeps knitting the dark maroon heap on her lap. "I wasn’t sure he even heard me," Tarn continues. "Then again, maybe it was just a line—but I don’t think so—he said, ‘Man, here’s what I think about. There’s the money. There’s the cars. There’s the clothes, and the jewelry, and the dope. And, Jesus knows, there’s the women.’ He looked at the moll. White, gorgeous, irrelevant. Eyeing a pair of black guys at the bar. ‘But, you know,’ Miles said, ‘there’s my horn.’"

Davis, from the record player, is in the middle of "I Loves You, Porgy." We listen a moment, and it seems that the notes he wants to play are far fewer than those he does play.

Tarn repeats the phrase: "There’s my horn." Its prodigious apparency has obvious meaning, namely, that the record is proof of what he’s saying, There’s Miles, listen to him play, there’s his horn. Forgive him his arrogance and drugs and womanizing. The man is his horn. But in those absences and spaces, in the loud pauses where he doesn’t play—his horn is there, too. I glance at Tarn, eyes-shut enthralled with Porgy.

Tarn repeats the words, "my horn, there’s my horn." You can feel him imploring Miles, the phrase like an incantation. "There’s my horn." His head is shaking a bit like a bobber whose hook and line is nibbled at far below. Suddenly he says, "My mother, you know, has had a stroke, and she can’t do anything for herself, and I’ll be damned, if Doris isn’t there helping her, I’ll be damned, if Doris," his wife’s name I guess, "isn’t over there every day doing what I oughta be doing, and she who’s not related, and never even liked her. Oh, Doris. If you hadn’t been so pushed by our better part." He pauses; the silence gives him momentum. "This is my fault. No. It’s not my fault. It’s my life. My choice. It’s my choice, not hers. It’s what I deserve. If only I would have listened to what Miles was telling me." He pauses again and opens his eyes, which seem sanctified and exhausted. He stands and announces, "I’m going home."

Roxanne is up with him, too. She piles the knitting, trays our emptied cups to the kitchen, returns with his coat and gloves. Tarn, his entering swagger reborn in him, is thanking us profusely, laughing casually at such a long day, so much feeling, so many memories. Coat, gloves, a hat from the pocket, and Miles under his arm, I hear him, in a voice all-business through the screen, say, "I’ll see you, my dear, Monday morning."

Roxanne comes close me and says, "You understand now." The room is quiet, the phonograph arm drawn back to its perch. She seems ready to cry—and would if Ringo were singing "Octopus’s Garden." Instead she nuzzles my ear with a kiss. She pulls back to regard me. Regarded, I plant a kiss in return. Tell me what you understand, I sense her asking as she escorts me to the bedroom and starts unbuttoning my shirt. Tell me what you understand, and she is kissing my chest while my fingers massage her scalp, grasp her hair and pull her head close to mine, then push it back, pull her close, push her back.

The quilt turns down. The lamp goes off. The light over the bathroom mirror goes on and the door closes until a strip of yellow lines and lights our bed. Our bout, as tumultuous as ever, rocks and pauses through several mounts and positions, mostly on the bed, a love so hooked in that I wonder whether it’s me, pushing this wildness into her or it’s her, pushing it into me. Later, I watch Roxanne at the mirror: She loves what she sees because I am there to admire her. I am there to hear her hum, "Fre-re Jac-ques, Fre-re Jac-ques, par-lez vous, par-lez vous."

She returns to the bed and kneels beside it. Retrieves what she was saying earlier, as if sex was a prelude to this moment, which she fills with a strange gratitude.

"You understand now, darling. That Alastair is using me? It’s not the first time he’s come here with his records to talk about the old days. He wants what might have been, which he thinks Miles Davis gave him more than 20 years ago. But then he doesn’t want it. And he comes over here to practice the pair—that is, wanting what might have been and letting it go. And for that I’m glad. I’m glad he’s using me to let go, and to go back to Doris, who really is a saint."

"But Roxanne—"

"No," she says, "no more," kissing each of my closed eyes. "It’s time for you to sleep. You’ve got to get up in the dark tomorrow."


Two days after that evening with Tarn, I received notice in the mail that my draft number had come up. (No longer a student, I had already been reclassified 1-A.) At the draft board nearest me in St. Louis, a friend, who feared the Army psychiatrist interviewing him was not buying his feigned psychosis, pulled out a pocket knife and slit his wrists. It got him out. Also friends in San Francisco had told me that if I took my physical at the Oakland, California, board, I had a chance of beating induction. East Bay was the place where the crazy and dedicated radicals convened, where Joan Baez said, "Girls say yes to boys who say no."

The night before my brother drove me to the Interstate, where I would hitchhike west, Roxanne presented the maroon scarf to me on her front porch, the one night we did not sleep together. She said it would be too sad to go through the records once more. She wouldn’t be able to stop crying. As for me, my mind was now on my fate: How was I going to beat the draft? Was I capable of putting on an act to get out? How big a lie would I tell? Would I resist and go to jail? Flee to Canada? Such misgivings preoccupied me while she wrapped the scarf around my neck in Olympic ceremony, as though I had won first place. I wanted to tell her how terrified I was, as she touched my face with her tear-stained fingers, then left me standing there after she went in and closed the door.

The scarf went with me to San Francisco, where I lived for a month, registered my body with the Oakland board, and waited for the tidings to arrive in the mail. I contacted the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker antiwar organization, who said that their "sympathetic psychiatrists" had, on such short notice, no appointments available. Contact a regular shrink. Tell him who you are and what you’re facing. Ask him to write a letter testifying to your mental unfitness for military service, but (and here the person’s voice on the phone got quieter) present yourself to him as mentally unfit.

I used two tools—writing and methedrine. In my journal I manifested an alter ego, seasoned with much fiction to produce the seriously depressed man I would be. Night after night on speed, I wrote about this person’s wound: He had a stormy youth idolizing then hating his father; when he was young he wanted to sleep with his mother; he once offered his naked body to his brother for a sexual favor; in high school he dressed up as a woman and made love to himself; worst, he feared that in the military he would because of his incestuous family life kill himself before he’d kill anyone else. The methedrine, and its jitters, would make credible my contrivance.

The shrink, an overserious, overtidy man, listened and took notes. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. But as I babbled on, sitting in his ultra-comfy blue-vinyl swivel chair, trying to stop shaking, glibly rendering my memorized litany of family hell (You think that’s bad, my father used to watch me when I was masturbating, I know he was there because I knew my mother had already peeked on me and told him), in the end the psychiatrist seemed surprised if not disturbed by my tale.

He said, "I’ll be candid with you. You ask that I write a letter to the draft board. I will. I will tell them the truth. You are a schizophrenic personality type, perhaps inclined toward psychosis, and your induction will lead to early and certain dismissal on psychiatric grounds. It’s apparent to me that you do need help, and I would encourage you to come back." I paid him $40 and left.

In my room, the fog fingering the city out the window, I took more methedrine and watched the CBS Evening News, with Cronkite recounting the dead and wounded in his avuncular cadence, Morley Safer squatting with microphone at the edge of a field while shots popped and vapors of gun and cannon puffed up from tree lines behind him. This was my ritual—it was comforting to see the war on television every night, no different from the songwriters who comforted Roxanne in her living room every night. A war, stalemated and televised, was soothing, in part, because each 90-second report ended with the correspondent stating his name and affiliation and Cronkite, accepting the grim facts for us with magnanimity, then going to commercial.

At last, I was riding a public bus to Oakland, my draft-board appointment scheduled for late morning. The hatless, sun-glassed driver drove toward the brilliant light shining on the east bay, and I thought of Roxanne, how much she would have loved the feel of that sun on her face, on her taut back, on her sponged-clean body.

At each of the physical’s several stations, I behaved as catatonically rigid as I could. I kept asking the white-coats to repeat things. "Huh? Wha’d you say?" Or "I don’t get it." Most seemed to regard me as inept and pathetic, which buoyed my hopes.

After giving blood, I sat for the longest time outside a medic’s office. Summoned at last, I was told that with so much methedrine and "who knows what else" in my system I had an acute case of hypertension and tachycardia; I needed to go wait in the lobby where I began. I glimpsed the psychiatrist’s letter opened like gulls’ wings on the medic’s desk.

Now I really started shaking. They’d found me out. I’d be sleeve-pulled into one of those big rooms where they’d swear me into the service. I’d be shackled and led to the brown school bus, with bars on its windows, for processing and shipment to Vietnam. I’d be too stunned, drugged as I was, to run. Before I got on the bus, I’d be marched past the taunts of the antiwar protestors, who in their human shield of locked-armed defiance around the buses, would try to convince me to defy my fate. A lawyer would be appointed, my case would be heard, there was an underground railroad that would take me to Canada and freedom. How committed to ending the war was I?

In that disconsolate beige waiting room, I squirmed on a steel folding chair. Like me, a few other unlucky ducks spaced themselves far apart to wait. No one talked. Thirty minutes dripped by. I seemed to realize that my freedom or enlistment was totally personal and, therefore, mundane. I knew in the moment all experience was internal. Everything then, even Vietnam, was inside me. But what did that matter?

When my name was called, I walked up and an Asian woman addressed me in severely broken English but I understood every word she said: I had too many psychiatric problems for the United States Army, and I was therefore reclassified 4-F, permanently ineligible for military service.

The verdict rushed through me: I was free. My ingenuity had got me out, and it was almost like picking oranges or, even stranger, like watching farm workers on TV picking oranges. In any event, for me the war was over. I had fought by not fighting; I had gone by not going; I’d returned by never having left. Best, I had won by engaging the enemy, my own government.

Turning to leave, I saw no one noticed my good fortune. No cheers, no whoops. Nothing but the silence of privacy, the shame of fear. In the front row there was a skinny, almost emaciated black kid sitting stock still, his head centered. He had no big Afro in the style of the times. Rather, his hair was close cut. His dark-rimmed glasses and clean white shirt read as though duty and country had been insisted on him, perhaps by his father. They called his name then and, though I’ve tried, I can’t remember it. Beauford, maybe. A southern name. I watched him, Beauford, walk up to the counter, where, given an envelope, his expression did not change. Then came a loud, long buzzer and a door opening, one of those vacuum-tight school doors, which on one side has a horizontal bar for a handle and above it a small 10-by-10 inch window lined with wire diagonals. Then a soldier came through, holding the door, motioning to the kid, Beauford, to walk toward the opening and through it. Then a—

But I was moving in the other direction, one hand covering my mouth, the other clutching my notice. I was walking faster, heading for an unlit exit sign. I was skipping down the stairs two-by-two to the sets of double doors that opened onto the street. I was running into the street where I could hear but couldn’t see the chants of the protestors in an apoplectic rhythm. Hell No! You Won’t Go! Hell No! You Won’t Go! I hoped in the moment they would pause and I could collect myself; they didn’t. I was running done one block and another, and saw the back of the bus and it’s number, 43, the bus back to the city, and then I was waving my paper exemption, waving it as though it had talismanic power to stop the bus, let me on and take me over the Bay Bridge.


I see myself on board, closing my eyes for a long time while the bus rumbles onto the bridge and heads west, and from the open window I smell the fresh bite of the Pacific fog, its wet cold caressing and tugging at my throat.

There, finally, is why—the feel of my throat exposed. Why I keep the maroon scarf—to ward off the cold, to remind me of Roxanne and Tarn, and to envision what happened to the other man, P.F.C. Beauford, last name unknown, the man who went to Vietnam in my place. I see Beauford driving his Sargent to a jungle location, to bivouac with platoon leaders for an assault on a village. I see Beauford freezing when before him he watches a white soldier drop through a palm-frond-covered hole and, within seconds, hears the soldier scream and gag, the sound of what he knows is the muzzle of a gun rammed into the man’s mouth, which the other soldier fires. I see Beauford a week later, lying with a prostitute in Saigon while, on the radio, Carole King is singing, "You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I’ll come running."

In the room where they are everything is wet. The bed, the sheet, the walls, himself, the girl. Sweat. Humidity. Rain. What’s the difference. The girl is fourteen. If that. As if an age helps. Timid. Helpless, except. She’s trained already. To watch herself. A little mirror she stares into. How she looks before and after. Beauford could sleep. Instead of leave. If he insisted. It’d be much better. Sleep leaves him most alone. Sleep is freedom. This is not freedom. Though he wanted it to be. Couldn’t remember how it would be. Couldn’t remember that he’d convinced himself it would. She’s up. Comb, brush. Clothes. A tiny bag. King is singing. Into the mirror she watches her lips speak. Go. Now, go. She means him. Or maybe herself. But not in his tongue. Not in the American tongue. Go. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. She doesn’t even know Beauford is black. Muhammad Ali is right: No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger. He touches the back of her neck. She winces, freezes. He spreads his fingers out. His hand—and he tries—can nearly ring her neck. Thumb and middle finger go, what, two-thirds of the way. Almost encircling. He clamps on. He squeezes. A tad harder. The girl looks pop-eyed afraid. He squeezes again. King is singing. He thinks of her head as a pimple about to explode. No more girl, no more Vietnam, no more war. But it’s stupid. He laughs. He loosens his grip. She starts talking loud, machine-gun fast. Ranting. In her tongue. Clearly, go, get out. She’s louder, half-crazy. She spits at him. He laughs again. Because her neck is barely more than his hand can know, he laughs. That spot where her throat is exposed. The spot he can’t quite go all the way around to. It is hers, inviolable. What is hers he keeps. What she has given to him. Without ceremony. Without knowing. He takes it back to base. He takes it back to Oakland. He takes it back to his family and his father and the woman he marries. It is the one thing about the war he never tells anyone. He never tells about the girl’s neck. He never tells. He never forgets. His father asks him one day whether there’s something else he wants to say. His body hears Carole King singing. Her singing tells him he can forget.