g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
I look down at my knees. Usually I cringe when I stare at my legs while I’m sitting down. My thighs spread out. I feel gigantic. But I haven’t been eating much lately, so when I examine my legs on the light gray leather seat in Eli Wilson’s truck, I don’t hate myself.
Whenever Eli and I are in the same town at the same time, he takes me on a date. I am going to school a few hours away from where he lives, and we are some of the few people from Pacific High that didn’t stay in the small town where we grew up. We met in high school. I was a few years younger, a member of FBLA, and helped start a weekly Bible study that met in a classroom during lunchtime. He got suspended seven times, wrote “Satan” on his shirt before taking his senior yearbook picture, and once came to school dressed as Hitler. He is 6’4 and 230lbs, now. He went into the Marines days after receiving his diploma. He looks like the kind of guy that other men don’t want to mess with. He opens doors for me and pulls out my chair in restaurants without a second thought.
It’s winter now. He thinks I’m too good to hang out with his friends from high school, the ones he drinks with whenever he comes back here to visit his mother, so around noon on the Wednesday after Christmas he picks me up from my sister’s apartment and we drive to Griff’s Restaurant.
It’s quiet with six tables and dark wood-paneled walls hung with a few nautical paintings. The view through the huge, clear windows is the main decoration. Griff’s is right on the dock, just twenty or so feet from hundreds of crab pots that are stacked and ready to be placed on the boats once the season opens (it had been postponed twice so far). Past the crabbing gear you can see the rocky jetty, which juts though the fog into the shadowy ocean. Skippers and deck hands are always driving to and from their boats to triple check everything. They are weatherworn men who need strong ropes and even stronger radio signals. Everyone in this town knows at least one fisherman who has died at sea.
Eli and I are the only customers in the restaurant. Laney, a girl who was a grade ahead of me in junior high, is our waitress. I wonder what she thinks, seeing us together. I try and see myself through someone else’s eyes. I curled my hair this morning, and then ran my hands through it to make waves like Veronica Lake. I wore a little makeup and my new favorite dress. It’s short and playful, and fitted just in the right places. It isn’t slutty or overtly sexual, just “cute.” That way I can pretend I don’t notice that men try and catch glimpses of my underwear when I reach for cereal on the top shelf at the grocery store or when I hop into the passenger seat of my mom’s ‘65 mustang.
Eli and I glance at the menu, and I warn him that I might not eat very much. I didn’t want him to be mad at me for not having a decent appetite. I can’t eat much of anything anymore because of the Aderall. Laney comes back after a few minutes, and I ask for a chicken sandwich. Even when I do have an appetite I am not especially fond of fries, but I order them so that Eli can eat them. Eli orders his food, and I gaze sideways out one of the large windows and recognize a strikingly handsome boat captain, the skipper for The Juevon, in a pair of sun-bleached blue and yellow hip waders moving equipment to and from his sand-encrusted white pickup. He had kissed me in that pickup just a few months ago, when I was home for the summer, but he didn’t see me through the window with another guy, and Eli didn’t see me noticing him. I smile to myself, like I was the only one who knew an exceptional inside joke, even though there was nothing particularly funny.
Laney brings us our food, and I put the fries on Eli’s plate. I don’t even want to look at them. I pick at my sandwich and sip cranberry juice, just to give my eyes and my hands something to do. I speak to Eli kindly and intently, asking him about his life and what he has been doing lately. Sometimes he glances shyly towards my eyes or my lips and has to recollect his words. I rarely let myself believe that it’s because I’m actually pretty. He’s probably just not used to hanging out with someone who is such a good listener.
He tells me that he is going to leave for Alaska in a few days, working seven days a week at a fish processing plant for five months. I can see that hard work doesn’t daunt him, and I tell him that it’s going to be an awesome experience. He seems skeptical, not understanding how a blonde with lip-gloss and lacquered nails would find interest in something so coarse. In someone so course.
When we are done eating, Laney brings us the check and a box for my barely touched food. I suggest that we drive around town, if he doesn’t mind leaving a little later than he thought to begin the six-hour trip back to his apartment in Portland. He agrees without hesitation, puts a few green bills on the table, and leads me outside again to his truck. It’s the nicest vehicle in the parking lot.
We drive to China Mountain road a few miles south of town. It’s a steep maze of old gravel roads for loggers and telephone tower maintenance workers. On one hill he has to try twice before he successfully gets us up to the crest of the road. The wheels spin out in the muck and the holes, and with sudden jerks and grinding noises we rapidly slide backwards, as though we are in a jeep on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I grab his arm, but still do my best to hold up my attitude that says I have no fear. “You better get up this hill,” I say teasingly, “Or else I won’t be impressed with your masculinity at all.”
Once safely at the top, we continue the drive. We pass an abandoned child’s car seat, and then make wild guesses about how it could have possibly gotten there, or what we would do if we found the kid it belonged to. Eli does an impersonation of a classic redneck man. “Well, I’d pick up the darned kid if we saw him, I guess. But I’d only drive him to his car seat. I’d kick him the hell outta my truck and tell him, ‘Kid, this is as far as I’ll take ya!’”
“Oh, come on,” I joke back, but with a morbid, deadpan approach, “I doubt the kid would be alive. But I’ve only ever seen a corpse at a funeral when I was in second grade. So at least I could cross it off my bucket list.”
He laughs in response. Men are always surprised at my sense of humor.
“Have you seen a corpse?” I ask him. The moment the words leave my mouth, I freeze in a wave of guilt at my own insensitivity. He was in Afghanistan for four years. He was a soldier. I shouldn’t have asked something like that.
Without a weighted pause or any emotional awkwardness he responds, “Yeah, I guess I’ve seen quite a few.”
Our eyes meet for just a second. I can easily imagine him as a sweet, redheaded child with dazzling, light blue eyes. I bet when he was a kid his pretty eyes made his mom melt, even when he was in trouble.
He turns back to the road and begins to talk. “I operated a crane, that was my job. When the aircraft came in, I’d use the crane to transfer the cargo. One time, though, the pilots were just standing there, waving me over. It wasn’t protocol, but helicopter pilots don’t have to follow protocol. They just get in and get out. They have to save people; they have shit that they need to do that’s more important. So these guys waved me over, right. I got out and walked towards them, and they motioned for me to come right up to where they were standing. ‘We’ve got this, and we need you men to take it!’ they yelled over the noise of those goddamned chopper blades. They handed me and this other guy with me a body bag. One of those big black ones, you know? We knew what was inside, but we had to take it. They took off right after they gave it over, no explanation. Nothing. We didn’t know where to take this thing. No protocol. The days were scorching hot over there, so we put it in a barrel and moved it into the shade so it’d keep. This other soldier I was with, he wanted to look inside. We’d carried this thing all the way over here, so he was curious. He unzipped it about a third of the way. Inside was this soup of a human. It wasn’t even a person anymore. He zipped it back up and we closed the barrel. He was just curious, you know. We’d carried it all the way over there. So, anyway, later on some MP’s drive up with an old Afghani man, and they bring out the body bag and lay it down in front of him. They unzip it to show him, and this guy just starts freaking the fuck out. Like, he’s just losing his shit. He’s a terrorist, and it’s his son who was also a terrorist. Part of the same group. His son was caught trying to bomb a military post. So they killed him, and they showed his body to this old man, to his dad. They wanted him to know what happens to terrorists who get caught. It was fucked up. Man, it was fucked. But his son, he tried to kill our men. His dad, he was trying to do the same thing. It’s fucked up, yeah, but they had to. They had to, I guess. Man. I don’t know.”
He stops the truck in the middle of the empty gravel path. “Do you mind if I smoke? You won’t judge me, will you?”
“No, of course not,” I tell him, meaning it. I think that’s what happens when you don’t expect one person to be everything to you. A guy can smoke cigarettes and want a career working heavy machinery. He can have a different taste in music than you and make huge truck payments every month. He can leave for five months to go have a job on an island near the shores of Alaska where cell phones don’t work and planes only go in and out a handful of times a month. It doesn’t matter to me, anymore. This guy. All the guys. They’re just men. Just a person you like being around. If you don’t expect a guy to be everything to you then he can just be who he is. And if you like that, if you like who he is, then that’s a great feeling for both of you.
Eli grabs a cigarette and a lighter and gets out of the truck. He rolls down the window before he closes the truck door so that he could keep talking to me. I don’t know what he says after that, though. I’m too busy just looking at this man, this ex-marine, who has been in Afghanistan and has seen things that other people can’t understand. I am grateful that he told me a bit of it, even just one thing like that. It’s different than what men usually confide in me. It’s usually because they notice my compassion and are compelled by maternal instincts. They suck my emotional resources dry like bone marrow until I have nothing left for myself. I offer it to them, following along with it, and fill the man up in every way he needs. I can always just tell what to give them, and that makes them think they love me. Then one day, out of the blue, I leave like it was nothing. I can’t stand being empty. Happens every time, with men like that. But Eli, he wasn’t trying to do that. He wasn’t asking me for anything. He wasn’t playing a game pretending to not be upset so that I would take pity on him or putting on some kind of show. I couldn’t see through him like I can with everyone else (most people, anyway). He wasn’t trying to appraise my worth with what I could do to fill him emotionally. He was just talking to me.
He finishes his cigarette and get back into the driver’s seat. We keep going a little ways, and then park up on the highest peak. To the left the hills are completely bare, just stumps and yellowing grass. Picked clean by loggers who didn’t care about the political incorrectness of clear cutting. To the right were full forests, miles and miles of coastal evergreens. Fir and Spruce and Port Orford cedar. In front of us was the sea, sprawled out wide and flat and covered in mist. Both Eli and I grew up with this infinite gray ocean next to us, affecting everything we did and everything we were. Our entire community: our economy, safety, even the air we breathed.
“Where is that?” I ask him, gesturing to the shoreline that is visible in front of us. He leans in close to me as though he is trying to see exactly where I am pointing to, but I can tell that really he just wants to justify being right next to me. We had been on four “real dates,” but he hadn’t ever kissed me. Once he put his arm around me, but it was when we were walking on the campus at my university. I didn’t want anyone I knew to think I had a boyfriend (I don’t like being defined by the men I date), so I continued with whatever I was saying but casually slipped out of his grasp. I wondered if that made him even more cautious with me.
“This right here?” he double-checks, pointing to the shoreline that I had been talking about, “That’s Battle Rock Beach.”
“Oh, really? That’s so crazy!” I am excited because that’s the beach that is right in town, where everyone goes to surf, hang out, or make bonfires. I am familiar with that beach in a way that only happens if a place is the center of everything you know.
“And that’s Cape Blanco,” he says, knowing I would be impressed. I was. We can see the beacon of the lighthouse when it turns. The light is probably fifteen miles away, maybe more, but we can see it from this mountain.
I look at him, and I think about the human soup he had seen. There are so many other stories, I am sure, but I want them to come about naturally. I thought about how much his mom probably loved him when he was a little kid. I thought about how well we both know this ocean. I lean into him and put my hand on his face, slowly bringing it to mine. I kiss him, and he kisses back. Gently and kindly, as though he thinks I am too sweet and easily lost to kiss any other way. He puts his hand up to my face, so tenderly that I smile mid-kiss, and he brushes his palm against my cheek and runs his fingers through my hair. I take his hand and hold it more firmly against my face and neck. I put my hand on his knee and squeeze, matching my grip with the building intensity of the kiss. I open my eyes and see his mouth curve into a smile. I kiss him once more, and we pull apart. His eyes look even brighter than they had before.
“You can’t have any idea of how beautiful you are,” he whispers, but then adds in a more casual voice, “I don’t mean to be corny.”
“You think so?” I question good-naturedly. He looks at me and shakes his head, as though there was no way in the world I didn’t know I was beautiful like he said.
I tell him he has spectacularly blue eyes. He doesn’t let himself take the compliment either, and tells me that one was different than the other. The pupil is bigger or something. He looks in the mirror and points. The left one. He had gotten towel whipped in the eye in high school while roughhousing with a friend. He had to leave Spanish class to go to the office and call his mom, a nurse, and have her pick him up and then take him back to her work at the hospital so he could get his eye checked out. He had to wear an eye patch and take antibiotic eye drops for a few days. He laughs about the memory, knowing how much grief he has caused his poor mother over the years.
“And this one.” He points to a fairly recent cut on his face, over his cheekbone. “I was helping my friend’s mom with her horses the other night, and I didn’t see the barbed fence in front of me. It scratched me pretty deep, and I was bleeding everywhere. She kept mothering me, trying to take care of me. I think she just saw all the blood and didn’t want me to sue her.”
“I don’t mind at all,” I tell him again, hoping he knows I am telling him the truth, and gently touch his face with my thumb near the healing wound. “I have lots of scars.” I wonder if he has noticed any of them yet.
Jane Campbell grew up on the Oregon Coast. She currently studies art and writing in Eugene, Oregon. This is her first publication.