Inspired by: “After the Bombs”, The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (2006)
“Fake Empire”, The National, Boxer (2007)
“Start a War”, The National, Boxer (2007)
The bombing started as you kissed me good night. Our breath was laced with garlic, which we’d joked about as we dug into the rich layers of lasagna at that pizza place with the red-checked tablecloths.
You stayed over, even though it was our first date. We huddled, fully clothed, under my dining room table where the glass wouldn’t hit us if the windows shattered. The newspapers had been preaching ‘duck and cover’ for weeks.
The blasts deafened. I jolted and cried out at each one, even as they retreated. You gave me the earbuds for your phone. The song we danced to at McGinty’s sounded tinny through such small speakers, but I smiled as I remembered how, just three nights ago, you were odd man out on the dart board, and consoled yourself by buying shots of Bushmills for the only girl in the bar.
When the headphones sputtered into silence, you replayed the song. You stroked my back and your lips brushed against my hairline. I’d never been kissed there before.
The factory I worked at crumpled during a raid, so I washed dishes part time at the hospital. Red Cross volunteers set up cots in the hallways for the less critically wounded. Their clothes smelled like smoke and sweat and fear.
You spent long days digging through rubble for survivors, sometimes in the very structures you’d once hammered together. The damaged buildings pained you like a sick child.
Food grew scarce. In the market, shriveled hands shoved mine aside to grab the best potatoes. Peppers cost what steak once had, and were riddled with black spots that I pared away with surgical precision. “Delicious,” you said after every meal.
Inflation spiraled and we moved in together. We chose your place because of the patio. You grew tomatoes on a trellis made from a broken pallet. I learned to pick them while they were still green and to ripen them on the window sill. In war, the neighbors could not be trusted.
We poured the cabernet into red Solo cups, toasted with our ruby chalices. We joined the celebrating mobs and walked two blocks before I realized I hadn’t put on shoes. Laughing, you hoisted me onto your back and I spilled a rorschach test onto your white t-shirt. I pressed my lips to it and sucked, not wanting to waste one drop. You’d exploited the flimsiest of connections to buy it and we’d managed to save it for this day, even though it tempted us on the nights the bombs whizzed by close enough to rattle our foundation.
You ripped red oleander from a hedge and made me a bouquet. I braided the stems and crowned you a prince.
“I am the emperor of all that you see,” you said, sweeping your arm to encompass the warped facades and mangled steel that lined the block. “And you are my queen.”
“Empress,” I said, laughing.
When you got down on one knee, the crowd’s cheers drowned my response so I kissed you instead. Our first kiss in peace. A Judas kiss.
We held the wedding on the patio, next to our third crop of tomatoes. The world was still difficult to travel and your sister was the only family in attendance.
The neighbors made a potluck feast. Everyone had hoarded during the war, and the elaborate dishes were as much about showing off black market skills as celebrating us. We ate foods we’d nearly forgotten: sharp cheddar, fennel sausage, baklava dripping with honey that emphasized the tang of the cheese. Our upstairs neighbor brought whiskey, which we had not drunk since the night we met.
Life should have been better without the specter of death shading our days, but we had not foreseen the luxury of petty fights. Our battle lines were drawn slowly, subtly.
You claimed you’d always left socks on the floor and the cap off the toothpaste, that you’d never done dishes or scrubbed the tub. You looked at me puzzled, wondered why I hadn’t seen this before.
Sometimes you caught me staring. I kept trying to recognize you, only to realize you’d never been known. Both of us were shocked when I yelled, “I’m not blind.”
I spent more time away from home, enjoying the pleasures peace laid at my feet. It was easy to linger at the grocery store, contemplating the heft of blemish-free produce; to sit at the café savoring the contrast of hot coffee against cool porcelain instead of drinking it on the go.
Once, I went to McGinty’s. I had the bartender pour me a row of shots, and paid the jukebox to play the song we’d danced to, trying to remember who we were before the war. But that “we” was just one night in a bar, and an Italian dinner I only remembered because it ended under my dining room table.
I intended to be gone before you came home, but you caught me as I closed my suitcase. I expected you to be sad or angry, but you surprised me and pulled out those red Solo cups from so long ago. I hadn’t realized you were sentimental.
You poured generous shots, and put on a CD.
“No,” I said when I heard the first measures of our song, but you pulled me close and made me dance. It was easy to pre-tend we’d just met, and things could unfold as they should.
The song ended, as had our fake empire, and the tune that rose in its wake was unfamiliar. I wept for all the war had given us, and all it had taken away.
“The music’s still playing,” you whispered. “We have time for one more dance.”
You kissed that spot along my hairline and kept your arms around my waist.
Georgene Smith Goodin’s work has appeared in numerous publications,and has won the Mash Stories flash fiction com-petition. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin. When not writing, she is restoring a 1909 Craftsman bungalow with obsessive attention to historic detail. Visit her blog, or follow her on Twitter @gsmithgoodin.