The man had no face. Or more precisely, he had a flap of skin stretched over the maw of his head, a way station between the busted gourd his face had been and the crude child’s rendering of a face it may, after dozens of surgeries, someday be. Jess forced herself to look at the smooth divots where the eyes should have been, as though the horror of it could reveal something fundamental about herself.
The man’s story was told on PowerPoint slides in triptych: beginning, middle, and still inchoate end. The guest seated at the foot of the conference table didn’t turn away or change expression, but Jess watched the color leach from his face. Surgeons assumed everyone regarded human bodies the way a butcher eyes a pig, and Jess often had to remind the doctors what graphic meant.
They sat with bottles of cold water sweating onto the table, windows overlooking a dull parking lot, while the surgeon coolly forwarded through slides. The surgical program Jess coordinated had become known around the country for complex reconstructions for service members. Their guest was a young staff sergeant himself, just off active duty, who now worked for a billionaire interested in veterans’ causes. “He never served himself,” the staff sergeant told them, “due to a bum knee.”
The surgeon explained how a full face transplant from a donor could provide superior results, how the entire infrastructure of the face—bone, muscles, arteries, and all—would be sawed off the donor’s head then screwed on and stitched up, in one clean piece.
“Where would the donors come from?” the staff sergeant asked.
“Private foundations,” the surgeon said, “interested individuals. Some funding from the hospital, given the innovative nature.”
Jess dropped her pen on the floor. This was the signal they’d developed to tell the presenter when he or she got off course, since the doctors were tired of Jess kicking their shins under the table.
“Sergeant, did you mean the transplant donors?” Jess asked. The only thing surgeons thought about more than blood was money. Donors and donors.
The young man smiled and nodded.
“Of course,” the surgeon said. They’d need to be on life support, he explained, still connected to a blood source. “A dead brain and a living face,” Jess had heard him say, but was thankful he had the sense not to use the unartful language now. He explained how they could create hyperreal masks that could be placed over the donor’s face for an open casket.
“For the family’s sake,” he said.
“You sure I can’t get you a coffee?” Jess asked the staff sergeant. He was still pale. He must have seen worse during deployment, she thought, but perhaps it was exactly that, not shock but fresh trauma that made him blanch.
Jess understood. Sometimes it was too much, sometimes she would stare at the presentation but let her mind slip away and think—of all things—of her sorority days, girls in boxer shorts crammed butt to butt on a sagging couch, their legs stretched out on the coffee table, tan and firm. How they would play lazy-ass rockettes, drunk kicking from the couch. She had not thought of herself as a sorority girl, but her freshman year roommate had been afraid to pledge alone, and Jess had found she fit. They called her the majorette because she knew how to kick off a party—to let out a howl, to drag girls onto the dance floor; she brought the anxious ones out of themselves, she unleashed the wild. The same quality made her good now, with the military men. She was athletic, a little loud, blonde and attractive, but with a deep voice and slumped posture that suggested a masculine comfort in her own skin.
Jess would try to layer the woman she was now, in a black suit slightly too tight in the shoulders and short in the legs, over that sorority girl, but they did not quite align, creating fuzz around the edges. In college, people had sometimes told her she should be a cop, picturing one of the too pretty, smart-assed cops found only on television. It was her broad shoulders and slim hips, she’d decided, that allowed people to imagine her with a gun in hand. It was odd how whole personalities—capabilities, even— were assumed from such details.
She might have been a cop, too, but her mother had died of stomach cancer the summer after college, and Jess had spent so many months in the hospital, getting to know the nurses, the cafeteria workers, the cleaning crew, that a hospital had begun to feel like a place where she could belong.
“I might like a coffee after all,” the sergeant said.
At the end of the conference room, they’d set up a carafe of coffee and a platter of miniature bagels. With her back to the group, Jess could get her phone out. It had been buzzing in her lap the entire meeting. She had a message from her assistant: the van driver was out. Jess would need to retrieve Corporal Tucker from the airport herself. He would think she’d engineered it that way.
Jess brought back coffee for herself and their guest. The staff sergeant explained that he’d report back to his boss, that he was impressed with what he’d seen. Jess wondered if they’d gone too far. And yet to be effective, they had to.
“Don’t forget your teddy bear,” Jess said to the staff sergeant. A housewife in Cupertino had made the program custom teddy bears stitched from surplus fatigues: they had button eyes, stitched U-shaped noses, and red ribbons tied around their necks. Different bears for each branch of the service.
She handed him an army bear. This was how they often ended meetings. They showed people pictures of men with no faces, then sent them home with a teddy bear.
* * * *
The webcam lagged, but Jess could see Captain on his cot in the corner, where the doggie day care staff at Wagville had sequestered him with the older dogs or the ones too skittish to be out in the yard. Corporal Tucker’s flight was delayed thirty minutes, so Jess had extra time at the gate. She’d gotten hooked on logging in, the little hit of pleasure of seeing Captain. Still there.
The month before, she’d had to give the beagle three antibiotic shots a day, plunged into a little tent she would make with her fingers on the scruff of his neck, and he was finally well enough to return to day care. Ninety shots. It was easy at first, but after a few days, he’d whip his mouth around the moment he felt her fingers on the back of his neck. Sometimes he jerked right as she was plunging the liquid in, and she’d have to poke him all over again or it would be too late and the antibiotic would have already landed in his fur. It was hard to stay calm, those times, to not shake him with frustration. He could not understand she had to hurt him to keep him alive. She would calm him, get him half-sleepy, and do it with stealth and speed. When that didn’t work, she pinned him down with all her body weight while he resisted. After, he would bite at his soft treat, his rotten teeth snapping, as though fighting the reward even while accepting it.
Captain was dying, but Captain had been dying for so many years without having actually died, that it no longer seemed fair to Jess to refer to this late stage of his living as dying. It was his temperament, the vet said, that accounted for his resiliency, the vet’s way of saying that Captain was dumb. Jess had family dogs growing up, ones who thought they were people and for whom old age was a great indignity, leaving them depressed and ready to go. But Captain, who could barely walk or see, who wore diapers and had seizures, seemed to have no notion of these limitations.
Jess stood as the passengers began to exit the plane. The skycaps and airport crew knew the program and let them wait at the gate, in what always felt to Jess like a romantic gesture.
She still called Marine Corporal Nicholas Tucker just Corporal after all these years, even though many other corporals had come through the program since. When he exited the plane he was expecting to spot the driver, so he walked right by Jess, his tall legs spindly, like a boy who hadn’t filled out yet. Jess watched him. He kept following the other passengers until he got stuck behind a woman trying to reanimate her toddler’s stroller. He dropped his duffel and leaned down to help her, snapping the whole thing up in one flourish, the work of a man who has done time with baby gear. For a moment the woman startled when she saw his face. Then he smiled and she smiled back.
It pierced Jess. She came from people who knew grit, who got on by fighting through. The Corporal was a marine. And yet he sprinkled his grace cheaply with those smiles, like leaflets falling straight from God.
“Corporal,” Jess said behind him.
He turned at the sound of her voice. But he was no longer smiling.
“Where’s Raul?” he asked.
“Jury duty,” she said. “I’m the driver today. Will that do?”
“Do I have any choice?” he said.
Twenty surgeries in and someone from their team always picked him up the airport like it was the first time. But the Corporal was not there for a surgery that weekend, only an interview for a national TV broadcast and another dinner where he would be the honoree. Over the years, he had become something of a celebrity, had been on CNN, in Time, enough that the news of his divorce—the divorce of an ordinary corporal and his wife—was a story that had made its way from Texas to Jess’s office with- out him even having to tell her.
His marriage story had been different. He wasn’t married before the war but proposed to his girlfriend after an improvised device had shot him out of his amphibious vehicle, and after he had been left with burns and covering a third of his body—two missing fingers, no ear, nose or lips—and after he had come down the airport escalator and dropped to one knee right in public, at the very moment his girlfriend saw his injured face for the first time. People thought it was brave of her to say yes. But what would any woman have said? Who would have been able to form the word no?
Jess reached for his garment bag, but he blocked her hand, carrying both his duffel and the bag, one over each shoulder. At the car, he opened her door even though she was the one driving.
She tried to make small talk as they pulled away from LAX, asking about his flight and the weather, but it felt wrong regarding him like a stranger.
“How’s Addie?” she asked.
“She wants a puppy,” he said. “She’s on hunger strike until I cave.”
“A girl after my own heart,” she said.
They were at a stoplight and she had the impulse to put her hand on his knee. She put it on the gear shift instead.
“And how’s my friend Captain?” he said. When Captain had been well enough, she used to bring him to the office, and he’d become a program mascot over the years. With his gray whiskers and stiffened gait, the vets had taken to calling him Captain Yoda.
“Hanging in there, he is,” she said.
* * * *
At the TV studio, a make-up artist with an apron full of brushes leaned over the Corporal’s face. Jess couldn’t hear their conversation from across the room, where she was speaking with the producer, but he was making the girl laugh, and she kept freezing her brush in midair, like she was telling him to stop. There was a red patch that extended from his nose to his chin, giving him a raw look even after all the surgeries he had had. When the makeup artist was finished, though, the skin was unnaturally matte and even, and he looked less like a war veteran than a Hollywood character actor who’d made his career on a fucked-up face.
The first time Jess and the Corporal had been naked together, he’d run his finger along a thick worm of a scar on her shoulder. “Where did you get this?” he’d asked.
War, she’d almost wanted to joke. She didn’t point out the strangeness in his asking her to recount the history of scars. But then again, she knew the story of his body, the story had become a public thing. Her body, with its moles and dimples and scars, was still hers.
Sometimes she lied when people asked about that scar. She told her sorority sisters that it’d come from a soccer cleat, and she’d been lucky it hadn’t been her face.
“I used to take long showers,” she’d told him, running her hand along his chest where the skin was smooth from his burns, “and we only had one bathroom in the house. It made my mother crazy. We had sliding glass doors, the rippled kind you couldn’t see through. One morning she was banging on the door for me to get out. And bam.” She whispered the bam, opening her hand in a burst across his chest, “and the glass all fell in one sheet. Sliced right into my shoulder.”
Jess had actually laughed when it happened, out of sheer surprise. She was wet and naked, standing in a pool of glass. Her mother had screamed, then started crying, and Jess had to step carefully out, dry herself off and ask her mother to sit still on the carpeted toilet lid. She had managed to dress herself—sticking a menstrual pad on her shoulder—and they had driven to the hospital with her little brother in the back. Her mother had told her to lie at the emergency room, to say her brother had been playing baseball out back and the ball had come through her bedroom window.
“Baseball at seven in the morning? It was an accident, Mom. I know you didn’t mean to.”
“But you have to lie,” her mother said.
“Why is it my fault in the lie?” her brother said. “What if I get in trouble?”
“Please shut up,” her mother said.
In the wound, Jess could see her own bone and tendon. It was hard not to look, to take this one chance to see what was inside her. In the ER, they injected painkiller right into the cut—that had hurt—but then Jess had watched the doctor stitch it neatly with a thick thread. She was fascinated by the complacency of her skin, how readily it had opened, and then would agree to shut.
Her mother, on the other hand, had been told to recline in the neigh- boring bed and the nurse had to deliver an orange juice to get her blood sugar up.
“Did it cure you of long showers?” the Corporal had asked.
“No,” she said. “It actually didn’t. My mother used to say I was incurable. In general.” Then, “I suppose I wouldn’t last long in the service.”
“There are some who never learn,” he said. “Who’ll take a beat down all day before they change. That’s a good way to die.”
* * * *
The TV producer was an older woman beset by various strings—lanyards around her neck, a headpiece trailing black cords, fluorescent bungees on her wrists jangling with keys—such that Jess had the urge to unburden the woman and show her to a chair. The producer was speaking to some- one else on the headset while explaining to Jess that they were starting to plan for the next Veterans Day segments.
“Your team always delivers,” she said. “Do you have something we haven’t seen yet?”
Before Jess could answer, she lifted her finger, pointed to the earpiece. She paced for a minute, and Jess noticed she was wearing fuzzy house slippers on the set. “No aioli,” Jess heard her say. “No a-o-leee.”
She came back and raised her eyebrow, the cue for Jess to speak.
“We’re doing a full face transplant later this year,” Jess said. “One of the first of its kind.”
“My god,” the producer said, the god hushed and low, in recognition of the horror of it, but her eyes glinted Oh my God!—a producer’s dream.
Jess explained how the new face would be a hybrid of the donor and the recipient, resembling both. She repeated the surgeon’s explanation: they had put the Corporal back together like a Rubik’s Cube, turn by turn, but this would be like laying down a clean sheet on a bed and tucking in the corners.
“We’d have to be careful about how much we ask of the patient,” Jess said. “He may want privacy.”
“Mm-hmm,” the producer said to Jess or to someone in her headset.
She sounded pleased, perhaps picturing the telegenic possibilities of the recipient meeting the deceased donor’s family. The surgical program was fueled by images, like Operation Smile in the third world: cleft palate, no cleft palate. Before and after. What could be more satisfying, what could provide a greater hit of pleasure?
They all wanted the next fix to be greater than the last. Jess had felt it herself, the disappointment when a new patient arrived with less dramatic injuries. They had already treated the worst disfigurements, and now just routinely changing lives with a foot or an elbow surgery did not seem enough.
Jess wanted more. She had closed her eyes at night and pictured— almost against her own will—a man with no face entering her, and it had given her a nauseating thrill.
On the set, the Corporal’s interview started. He and the correspondent were angled toward each other, so close their knees nearly knocked. The woman looked prettier but older in person than she did on TV.
“People stare,” he was telling her. “Of course they do. I don’t look like I did at twenty-five—but who does?” He laughed, and she laughed with him.
“But before, they wouldn’t stare. Even kids would look away. Now they just ask what happened to my face. Because now it is a face. I don’t know how to say this exactly,” he said, “but it didn’t seem fair, before, for my wife to have to look at me. Because it was really hard to look at. It wasn’t something you could just get used to. I may not be pretty now,” he smiled again, “but you can get used to it. It’s not a shock over and over again.”
The woman leaned in to him. The Corporal’s throat burns had left his voice raspy and high so that he couldn’t raise it, which had the effect of drawing people closer.
“I read recently that your marriage has ended,” the woman said, “and I was so sorry to hear it. Your wife was a marine as well?”
They’d agreed in advance that there would be no questions about his marriage. The producer felt Jess tense, raised her arm to keep her from moving toward them.
“In Fallujah,” he said. “She had it worse than I did.”
“And you now have custody of your daughter?”
“I do,” he said.
Jess saw the woman’s eyes gleam with the combination of compassion and infatuation single fatherhood (and in a disfigured veteran, no less) elicited in most women. She looked ready to lean forward right into his arms before she regained her journalist’s composure.
“What’s next for Corporal Tucker?” she asked. “There are some people who’d like to draft you into politics. Your gift for oration has been called presidential.”
“It’s flattering,” he told her. “But I think my era of public service has come to an end.”
“Where did you learn to give speeches like that?” she said. “Where does that gift come from?”
“Conviction,” he said.
* * * *
Captain had come along after the breakup of the one long relationship Jess had managed after college. She’d inherited an Irish temper from her mother and was impatient with men after a point. They were slobs, or they thought she was a slob, which she was when she wanted to be. Coupledom, she thought, was its own solitude, until you had three or four kids to liven it up. Single, she could work 24–7, could surround herself with other people, stay in perpetual motion.
The guy, Vince, had been short but cocky, wore his roman nose like he wore his leather jacket. He was fun. He wanted to be a commercial pilot—was going to be a commercial pilot, if you asked him—but had been stuck for years hauling cargo on prop planes, spending untold hours in wood-paneled depots. He had too many traffic tickets and repossessions. He could fly, though. He could charm a plane. But no one was ever going to trust him with passengers. He had a tow-headed six- year-old named Gracie, who wore a size 4T but already knew the capital of every country in Africa, and it was the girl who made Jess think about marrying Vince. She couldn’t imagine breaking up with Gracie. She thought of her getting older, forgetting that Jess had ever been in the picture.
But that was exactly what had happened in the end. And then her friend who worked in the neuroscience research building had called and asked if she’d adopt a dog.
“What kind of dog?”
“A beagle,” her friend said. “Like Snoopy.”
Jess knew the medical school did research with rats or mice or the zebra fish, with their transparent embryos and ability to regenerate. The researchers used code words for animal research like translational or bench-to-bedside, without encouraging people to think about what that meant. But Jess hadn’t known about the dogs. They couldn’t exactly advertise the adoption, her friend explained. The labs had enough protestors as it was.
“So does it have Parkinson’s or something?” Jess had asked. Her friend’s lab studied neurodegenerative diseases.
“It was a toxicity study,” she said. “So the good news is, the drug’s not toxic.”
Captain, as it turned out, was not like Snoopy. He’d been bred as a lab animal and knew no other life; he wasn’t housetrained and was not, in Jess’s estimation, very bright. His vocal chords had been cut, but he silently howled all the time: at his own image in the mirror, at the shows on television, at the neighbors from Jess’s postage-stamp patio.
But he was a happy dog, and Jess projected onto him a knowingness, a sense of joy that came not from his dogness, his tongue flapping in the wind—but from knowledge that he had escaped almost certain euthanasia. When she was with him, she felt that she, too, had escaped something and was grateful to find the relationship with Vince in her rearview mirror. Her life, it later felt, had been impossibly sad before Captain had come along. After a bad day, she would stroke his head almost too hard, the eyelids pulling back from his eyes. Then she would put her head down by Captain’s bed and take in his corpse breath, which, as the smell she had come to associate with him, had come to fill her with a weird pleasure.
“I don’t want to be honored,” the Corporal said as she drove from the TV studio to the hospital hotel where he would get dressed for the evening event.
“It’s a tough gig, I know,” she said. “Getting all these awards.”
“I’m serious. I can’t do it.”
They’d had versions of this conversation before. He had met A-list actors, the president, Prince Harry. He had spent more of his life being honored than he did in the service, and in hyperbolic moods, he’d compared himself to Kim Kardashian, the infamy of the grotesque. All he did was get blown up. The second he started to believe it was actually about him, he said, this would have to end.
“It’s a few minutes,” she said. “You’ll get up there, and you’ll do that thing you do with your hands.” Because he couldn’t raise his voice, he compensated by gesticulating like a pastor. Jess had named the motions: the karate chop, the elevator finger, the calipers, the hand to God.
“The clapping,” he said. “The relentless clapping at these things. Do you know how much I’ve grown to hate that sound?”
They had reached the hospital hotel, and she leaned over his body to open his door.
“Even the best show pony gets retired eventually,” he said.
But when the surgeries had rendered a face as good as it was going to get, burns got stiff again and required touch-ups to keep the flexibility in the features. So a guy might come back year after year, until the surgical fatigue was too much, when one more time was one time too many.
“You’re ruining me,” he said.
Jess did not know if the you meant the program or Jess or both or if there was even a distinction for the Corporal anymore.
* * * *
Jess waited at the front desk at Wagville, which was filled with dog food disguised as people food—sushi rolls, cinnamon buns, ribs—and got the report on Captain’s day while a handler went to get him.
“He slept most of the day,” the girl said, “after he got settled in.”
Handlers brought the other dogs out on leashes, sniffing, leaping, nearly knocking their owners over. A young man in khakis and a lime-green polo held Captain in his arms instead.
“He can walk,” Jess said, and clipped the leash onto Captain’s harness, and the tug from Jess gave Captain a burst of energy. The white tip of his tail stood at alert. “Come on,” she told him. “Let’s take a walk before we get into the car.”
The walk was a slow investigation of the perimeter of the Wagville parking lot, sniff after deliberate sniff. She had read about beagles when she’d first adopted Captain, how the big ears were bred to capture scents and keep them close to the nose. Captain’s ears were extra-large. When he sniffed like this, she often thought of his first time on grass. The lab where he had been raised required daily exercise, but there were only indoor runs. When she’d taken him home, he had stayed in his open crate for a full fifteen minutes as though awaiting further instructions.
“Why do they use beagles?” she’d asked her friend at the time.
“For the same reasons they make good pets.”
She’d been told not to force him out, that his hound’s nose would eventually lead him, and it had. He’d been light footed on the grass, like he wasn’t sure its softness could be trusted.
Now, when they got home from Wagville, she gave him three pills—a steroid, a thyroid pill, and another antibiotic—each one tucked in a piece of extra sharp cheddar cheese to mask the scent. She’d become religious about his pills. He’d needed all the injections because he’d developed antibiotic resistance, what the vet called a MRSA-like infection raging in his blood. It had been her fault, Jess thought, from those times she hadn’t completed his course of antibiotics because he’d gotten cramps or diarrhea.
She unwrapped one of the little bars of soap she saved from hotels and took a short shower to wash the day off. She wanted the smell of the new soap on her skin. She caked on extra makeup, thick and slightly dark foundation that would photograph well on the step and repeat. She picked out a short, tight white dress, with thick straps of fabric that smoothed every bump and transformed her into one seamless curve. It was the sexiest dress she owned; looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, she felt like an ex-wife who had left her husband but still wanted to be wanted by him.
* * * *
She hadn’t meant to sleep with the other men after the Corporal and wasn’t sure she could be honest even with herself about why she had. The first had been Javier, one of the single men, the guy most popular with all the other guys, who tipped a lot at the bars and drank too much, whose athlete’s frame had gone soft and fat. They had been alone together plenty of times, the last two to leave at a party, Jess just another one of the men. And then after a football game where the guys had been honored on the field, they’d had too much—they’d started at the tailgate—and she and Javier were sitting on bar stools at a place down the street from the stadium, when he’d turned to her, suddenly serious. “God, you look good,” he said, in a voice she’d never heard from him before. She should have turned away, but kept her eyes on his instead, and he slid his knee between hers and spread her legs apart, just a few inches, right there at the bar. And she felt that burning that came on in an instant. And there was a small voice, sublimated by the beer and the burning, that had protested. But she had gone too far. Her body was in charge. So he had fucked her, sloppily, in the back of the program’s van.
Javier and Corporal Tucker were both from Fort Irwin. There was no way the Corporal would have told anyone about him and Jess. But Javier was a talker, and even as she’d asked him the next day to keep it confidential for professional reasons, she could see him gloating to the Corporal, trusting he’d be the one friend who would keep it quiet. And she had felt the Corporal take this in and give Javier a congratulatory slap on the back, still smiling, while everything he’d had with Jess unspooled behind his eyes.
Sex with the others had been sad: the men were wounded in ways the Corporal was not. She would want to look at them, to watch their faces when they were inside her, but they would turn her over, or the sex would just be her face in their groins, as that was all they could muster.
She had been lonely—that was one true thing—and they had been even lonelier and she had wanted to fill that loneliness with herself in a way that was narcissistic and ennobled, like she should be applauded for being someone who would want them. But she suspected that she had done it to blot the Corporal out, to mask her feelings by pretending this was a fetish, to make herself irredeemable in his eyes.
She recognized what had happened with the Corporal because it had happened before during her senior year in college, with a friend she’d hung out with for years. He was a guitar player, sweet and low-key, with a kind of understated retro style too sophisticated for his age. She had never noticed attraction between them, just a daily comfort she’d grown to like, until one day she went to her car and he was standing there, leaning against it. He asked her if she wanted to go somewhere. He took her to a rock formation just outside of town called erratic rock—which all the college kids called erotic rock—and it became clear he’d been watching her all those years. She was flattered. She was used to athletes, men who could conquer her own masculinity with their sheer bulk, their ability to press her down. With him, she’d gone on proper dates, the kind where he held the door and deferred to her when she ordered and looked upon her with meaning. Not in the way of a teenager pretending but with the confidence of a man. And she had not needed the bulk, then, to make her feel like a woman. There was a way he would touch the small of her back, lean her against the car. He had been sexually attentive, too, and it had frightened her. Soon, the worshipful quality had become too much. It would have been just the story of a sad boy if not for her sorority sister who had been pining for him, love that Jess had mistaken for a mere crush. And when the girl found out, Jess slept with all of the boys’ friends, which had hurt the boy worse, but which Jess had meant as an apology to the girl, a way of saying, see, it meant nothing, I do this all the time: you can still love him.
* * * *
When she arrived to pick the Corporal up, he wasn’t out on the curb and didn’t answer his phone. Jess asked the front desk manager to let her into his room.
The dingy antechamber that classified the space as a “suite” gave off the distinct smell of dormitory, even though the rooms were regularly cleaned. There was something about the scents of individual people commingling—scents that wouldn’t be objectionable on their own, Jess thought—that created something loamy and sour, in the way even vibrant colors, when combined, turned universally brown.
“Corporal,” she whispered. Then, “Tuck.”
She opened the bedroom door to find it dark, a tangled mass on the bed. She stopped and listened. She could hear him there. Breathing.
“What are you doing?” she asked, turning on the overhead fluorescent. Under the obscene light, the room smelled more profoundly of sleep. He groaned and covered his head with the hotel quilt. It was patterned with birds-of-paradise and hibiscus, as though this were a Best Western in Hawai’i and coming to the medical center was a budget vacation.
She went to the closet and found his dress blues still in the garment bag.
“Sit up,” she said.
He groaned again but sat up, eyes closed. He was wearing only boxers—plain white skivvies—and she could see the burned flesh of his chest, so familiar she’d come to see the striae as decorative, like a tattoo.
“Don’t make me do this,” he said quietly. He opened his eyes. “I have to,” she said, and handed him an undershirt.
She managed to get him standing, his pants on, then held out his jacket for him, one arm at a time, and slowly buttoned it up to the neck. With his missing thumb and finger, he still struggled with tiny buttons. She could feel the hot breath of his mouth on her forehead. It was the closest she had been to him in months. She unwrapped his medals from the cloth where he kept them folded and pinned them onto his left breast.
“Let’s just stay here,” he said, understanding that the chance to be with him again was the only thing that might earn him a reprieve. The kind of trick women pulled all the time, Jess thought. He was right. She wanted to crawl into the smelly bed, watch the old television together.
She went to the bathroom sink and ran a comb through water to tamp down one of his errant hairs.
“What are you wearing?” he said when she came out, like he’d finally seen her. His mouth was open in what looked like disapproval.
“It holds everything in,” she said, looking down at herself. “It’s called a bandage dress.”
“That’s fitting,” he said. “We look like it’s Halloween. Like I’m the wound and you’re the dressing.”
* * * *
There was clapping. Clapping and craning, people awkwardly seated in rounds of ten, moving their forks and knives quietly over plates of salmon while trying to face the speakers. She always left these things exhausted and hungry, with a crick in her neck. This event was like the others: the stage draped in blue cloth and military flags; the lights low, the design a strange hybrid of wedding and funeral; and the theme, yet again, of Heroes, which no one thought required creative adaptation. Heroes: they were standing up for them or rocking out for them or playing Texas hold‘em for them.
The Corporal did what the Corporal did best: he remembered names and addressed everyone by them. People wanted photographs, hand- shakes, and he would clasp their hands in both of his. They wanted a piece of him. Jess watched each person walk away from the encounter believing he or she was special, just as she had every time she’d been alone with him. But Jess knew that touching something beautiful to get some of that beauty for yourself only rendered the object less pure, and made yourself that much uglier for having been the one to taint it.
When the time came for the Corporal to come to the podium, the entire room was already on its feet. He held his hand up and was silent for a long moment, building the drama in the way that seemed instinctual. But when he spoke he said, “The heroes in my life are the people who put me back together. Tonight, instead of hearing from me, I want you to hear from one of my favorite men, Dr. Roy Kapur.” He motioned for the plastic surgeon to come on stage, and after he had shaken his hand, he left him there alone.
The Corporal was done. Next year, the man without a face would have features again and would stand on the podium instead, and even though he could not be the Corporal, he did not need to be. His face would tell the story for him. He would scarcely need to speak.
* * * *
The Corporal wanted a drink, but there was no alcohol back at the hospital’s hotel and he didn’t want to be at a bar, surrounded by other people. Jess drove to her apartment without asking, because he would not admit wanting to go there—and because he might, if forced to acknowledge it, actually refuse.
Captain came to greet him, even though it took effort for him to get up, his hind legs catching on the lip of his dog bed. His face met a couple of walls on his way to the door, but he could still smell, still knew it was the Corporal. The white tip of his tail shot back and forth like a flag of happy surrender.
“You seem even older, old man,” the Corporal said, leaning over to pet him behind the ears. “If that’s possible.”
Seeing them there, she wondered if it was Captain he had actually come to say his good-byes to, in the way Jess had held on not to Tony but to little Gracie.
She went to the kitchen to pour them both vodka tonics. She found a dried out lime and rolled it under her palm to revive it enough to squeeze a few drops into their drinks. She had never been good at playing hostess. In the living room, the Corporal had taken off his blues jacket and sat in his undershirt, with Captain resting at his feet. The Corporal had teased her about her apartment before: the place had a temporary look even though she’d been there eight years, with a worn Chenille covered couch and scratched oak side tables she’d gotten free from the public library. It could have benefited from houseplants, but she didn’t have a good track record. Decorating would be admitting something, she thought.
They sat silently, Jess wondering why she didn’t keep better vodka in the house, until she finally had enough drink in her to ask him what had happened with his wife.
“You want to know something I was thinking about today, during that interview?” he said. “That proposal story, how I came down the escalator in the airport and dropped on one knee right there? It’s not true. I was still in BAM-C and the first time she saw me was in my hospital room. So I couldn’t exactly drop since I was already in bed. I still asked her in about fifteen seconds, so I guess it’s not that different. But someone started telling it that way in the media and I tried to correct it a few times but it just kept going. I guess it made a better visual, me coming down, her looking up at me with my wrecked face. But what I actually did was, I covered the bottom of my face with a blanket and told her to look me in the eyes.”
He held up his empty glass, still filled with ice. He had never been a drinker, not like many of the other servicemen, the ones Jess could barely match drink for drink. He had gone to Iraq for just ten weeks. He had a vague memory of having been on fire, of rolling himself on dry ground, and the shock of coolness when the fire had been put out. He had only given his face, he’d repeated in speech after speech, when others in his unit had given their lives, but what drove Jess to madness after all these years was that he seemed to mean it, and how could anyone mean that?
She poured them both another, stronger this time. Jess drank half of hers before she’d even left the kitchen, feeling it work its way into her shoulder blades, her knees, creating the kind of supple but strong exo-skeleton that alcohol provided.
Jess had met the wife only once, which was unusual; the spouses usually traveled with the patients. She remembered she had sensual features, round eyes and thick lips, but made an expression like she had forgotten how to use that kind of face. She had a way of holding her features stoically, like a person with bony cheeks and thin lips would do.
“I shouldn’t have proposed like that,” he said. “It wasn’t fair to her, I get that now.”
If Jess had been his wife, his good nature would have broken her. No one, she thought, should have that much goodness. It was unnatural. And Jess knew at some level that she had wanted to blemish him, that she had slept with him to make him less perfect, to fix the bell curve of human sainthood in everyone else’s favor.
He took two long drinks before speaking again. “Anyway, do you want me to tell you it’s not your fault?” He tried to raise his voice but it cracked. “Or do you want it to be?”
“I don’t want that,” she said and hated how feeble she sounded.
He got up and walked over to the faux-walnut wall unit where Jess had stacked old books and DVDs and CDs on shelves she now noticed were covered in six months’ worth of dust. At his eye level stood a row of framed photos: Jess with a group of Alpha Phis sticking out their Go Blue! lollipop-stained tongues; Jess and her brother at his law school graduation, the know-it-all kid grown into a know-it-all lawyer; and a much younger Captain with aviator goggles on, dressed up as Snoopy for his first Halloween.
“She had a child with another man, for starters,” he said. His back was turned to her. “I knew my war. But I didn’t know her war.”
He picked up a framed photo that one of the nurses had given Jess for the holidays. Jess stood on the football field in the center of a row of wounded men. It wasn’t the same time she had slept with Javier, but the Corporal wouldn’t know that. When she looked at her own photos, the glossy-lipped friends at a bar, faces washed out with flash, she would picture Dateline, the tight shots of couples on tropical vacation, couples where one of the two had ended up dead; how the producers would zoom in on their smiles over and over again, begging the viewer to project prescience or villainy onto those mouths. And she would look at her own face that way.
“Not everyone gets off on this,” he said, putting the frame back on the shelf. “For some people, it’s just sad and that’s all there is.”
She was about to argue—though against what point, she wasn’t sure— when she felt Captain twitch at her feet, his body tense up.
“Oh shit,” she said, leaning over. He was seizing.
She dropped to the floor to hold him still. Without his bed, he was jerking, had nothing to prop his head against.
“What’s happening?” the Corporal said.
“Can you get his bed over here?” she said. “Quick.”
He brought it over and she lifted him up. Captain panicked in the air, feeling nothing beneath him, twisting violently left and right in search of a surface. She laid him in the bed and positioned his head so that it rested on the edge. His neck craned back, like he was in a deep howl. His eyes bulged, the balls shifting left and right.
“This has happened before?” the Corporal said.
“For a while,” she said. “Off and on.”
“What are we supposed to do?” he said. She’d never seen him look panicked before.
“Come here,” she said. “Sit on this side. Just soothe him.”
They sat on either side of Captain’s bed, Jess stroking his head and the Corporal running his hand down the dog’s back.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Nothing. Everything? He was a medical research dog.”
His hand stopped. “He was what?”
“He was a rescue from one of the labs at work. Who knows what they did to him.”
She told him the story, then, how there had been ten beagles—five girls and five boys, the girls named for Disney princesses, the boys for villains. That was how Captain had gotten his name—Captain Hook. “Can you believe they named them?” she said.
“And you never mentioned this?”
She watched Captain, who was still seizing, but she felt his eyes on her. “I got sick of people feeling sorry for him,” she said.
“So that’s how it is,” he said.
“How what is? Stop looking at me like that.”
“How long will this last?” he said. “There’s nothing you can do for him?”
“Depends,” she said. “Sometimes a minute, sometimes an hour.”
“An hour? Jess, please.”
And it did last, not violently but quietly, like a small electrical charge was rickshawing through the dog’s old nerves. It lasted so long the Corporal got up to make them more drinks, and they sat on the floor in silence, stroking the dog with the tenderness they had once shown each other.
“You have to put him down,” the Corporal said.
“I know,” she said. “I know that.”
Twice, when she had been walking Captain in the evening, different neighbors had asked her if she didn’t just want to put him down. The neighbors were old themselves—seniors who lived in the affordable housing units on either side of her apartment building. Should someone put you down? she had wanted to say, but offered some cheery platitudes about what a trooper he was.
“You have to,” he said. “Promise me.”
A few times, Captain had stopped walking and rocked backward on his hind legs—the briefest warning sign—and keeled over right there on the sidewalk, so rigid it looked fake. She had scooped him up before anyone could see and rushed him back to the apartment. She had thought, this is it this time, and steeled herself, whispered permission in his ear, and then he had jerked upright and began panting with thirst, and all was forgotten. How was she supposed to know when to let him go?
“Jess,” the Corporal said, “look at me.” He tried to raise his voice but it was snuffed out.
“I promise,” she said, but even she did not know if that was a lie.
From DOG YEARS. Used with permission of University of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright © 2016 by Melissa Yancy.