Photograph via Flickr by Don LaVange
Chloe was a slut and had been one since college, so Ben Hooper would never sleep with her as a matter of principle. Despite her sexual habits, he respected her because she was a woman. With respect and no chance of sex, all Hooper had left for Chloe was his friendship.
“How’s this?” she asked.
Turning from the television, Hooper looked at Chloe. She wore very short red shorts and a billowy white shirt. Though she had wide features and was once mistaken for a transvestite, she could be lovely once you got used to her.
“It’s fine,” Hooper said.
“You don’t like the top.”
“The top is fine. It might be a little warm for long sleeves.” He turned back to the cartoons on the television. Chloe walked back into her bedroom.
Had he not been stoned that morning, Hooper would have been growing impatient with Chloe fussing so much over her damn clothes, but contemplating his cotton mouth and the goggle-eyed cartoon characters on TV, he had trouble caring.
Several nights that week, he’d woken up in the middle of the night and wondered where his rifle was. He’d know he was there in Williamsburg on Chloe’s couch,
but where in fuck-all was his rifle?
Chloe had invited Hooper to stay with her for the week he was on leave in New York City. She lived in a third-floor walk-up in Williamsburg with a dour roommate named Gina. Several nights a week, Chloe’s boyfriend of the moment also stayed in the messy apartment, making for somewhat cramped quarters.
The clutter didn’t help. Though the apartment wasn’t dirty, clothes swam across the floor from corner to corner, fashion magazines cascaded off the coffee table, and the odd bra draped over a chair in the kitchen or over the living room couch where Hooper slept.
Or tried to sleep. Several nights that week, he’d woken up in the middle of the night and wondered where his rifle was. He’d know he was there in Williamsburg on Chloe’s couch, but where in fuck-all was his rifle? It wasn’t anything deep. Just surprising. It was like waking up in the middle of the night and wondering if he’d left the milk out.
And it wasn’t only when he slept. Other times during the week, walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant, he’d looked down to his hip and wondered where he’d misplaced his M-4. He’d had his rifle slung over his shoulder for so long, had always been so aware of it, that now back in civilization he felt it was always missing, like he was supposed to have another limb growing out of his lower back that was no longer there.
He’d sometimes catch himself wondering why people walking their dogs through the park or eating their potatoes in diners didn’t notice that they had something missing as well. Hooper knew that the idea that everyone should have a rifle slung over his or her shoulder was idiotic, but he couldn’t keep the thought from sneaking up on him. It was like the first day of spring that you dare to wear shorts, and you keep feeling like you walked out of the house without your pants on. You see other people in shorts and wonder how they can stand the cold.
These misplaced thoughts were frustrating, but instead of letting himself get very angry, Hooper spent money. After eight months without spending a dime of his tax-free income, he’d come back to the States flush with cash. Like every soldier he had deployed with, he would probably buy himself a new car, but for now, he bought his friends drinks and dinners and gifts as if it was Christmas and he was some lean and tan Santa Claus.
While Hooper had been overseas Chloe had written him concerned letters and had mailed him anti-itch cream and mix CDs. Though the sentimental crooning and electronic beats were not to Hooper’s taste, the music had helped him fall asleep in his cot. Chloe had called the music “indie rock,” but since all the bands were signed to major record labels, Hooper had not been able to understand the definition.
As a way of thanks, though he realized it was a stupid sentiment and as a gesture of gratitude was probably weird and approaching kinky, Hooper offered to buy Chloe shoes. Chloe liked clothes, and shoes were easy. Shoes weren’t exactly something personal, they made a good gift, would almost always fit, and what girl couldn’t use a new pair? A handbag may have had the same qualities, but maybe Hooper did want a hint of the sexual innuendo that can apply with a man approaching a woman’s feet. Buying shoes for Chloe was a way to go to the ballpark without having to play the game.
Thumping on her bare heels, Chloe came back into the living room to grab another top off of the floor before disappearing into her bedroom again. She thumped back out and, slouching, her hands on her hips, again asked what Hooper thought of her outfit.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Yeah. You look nice. Let’s go.”
“I like the shirt with these shorts, but I, like, need something that can still give me an idea of what the shoes will look like with the dress.”
“Sure,” Hooper said. “That’ll work.”
Chloe blew a hair out of her face.
“You haven’t even seen the dress,” she said, thumping back into her bedroom.
After several more costume changes, Chloe took half an hour to put on her makeup. She put on jewelry, changed her jewelry, and changed it back. She put on shoes, took off her shoes, and put on sandals. She was ready to go.
“Yeah?” Hooper asked.
“Yes. Come on.”
Hooper turned off the television.
Chloe and Hooper took the L underneath the East River into Manhattan, then took the 6 downtown. The air conditioning on the 6 was broken, and they stood hanging onto the overhead bar sweating at each other.
The people in the subway car hovered too close around Hooper. It was like the market in Orgun when the curious crowds following the Americans shifted around him and his squad. The hajjis in their man-dresses hiding their hands while smiling at the soldiers. The women in their burkhas like shadows. The kids holding their pale, dirty palms out, screaming, “One pen! One pen!”
Feeling the sway of the train through the haze of his buzz, Hooper kept track of where each person stood or sat, and he took note of where they all kept their hands. A man in black fumbled through his backpack, but he just pulled out a piece of gum. A middle-aged woman sitting close to him kept both of her hands on her paperback thriller. Chloe held the overhead bar of the subway car.
The loud teenagers on the train bothered him. What right did those cocksuckers have to spread their personal space so wide? Hooper’d had cherries like that in his platoon. They’d learned to shut up pretty quickly. Gathering in groups in the motor pool, the cherries would speak together with just as much animation as these fuckheads with their crooked baseball caps, but at least the cherries had learned to be quieter.
And what the fuck was with the dog tags these kids wore as pendants on their necklaces? And only one, silver dog tag, sometimes encrusted with motherfuckin’ rhinestones. The only people Hooper knew of who wore one dog tag were the dead. The second dog tag had been collected by an officer.
Chloe let go of the overhead bar. She half-staggered from the motion of the train before grabbing a hold of Hooper’s free arm for balance.
When was the last time a girl had held him? And gently? Hooper was pleased to rediscover the sensation. Why the hell had Chloe let go of the overhead bar?
She gave him her funny half-smile.
Hooper glared at those kids with one dog tag, wondering where their rifles were, but in their competition to look joyful, they did not notice him.
Hooper and Chloe walked out of the subway into SoHo and the yellow afternoon sun. On the wide sidewalks the crowds walked slow, gawking at the tall window displays of women’s clothes and men’s shirts and shoes and hiking boots and more women’s clothes. There were too many people. Crowds were always stupid, lumbering things until they turned into angry, thunderous things that were still stupid.
“Let’s try the side streets first, huh?” Hooper asked.
Hooper took Chloe by the arm and steered her off of Broadway. It was still crowded, but the sidewalks were more narrow, leaving Hooper fewer people to account for.
Despite the crowds and because he was stoned, Hooper couldn’t help but enjoy SoHo. From behind his sunglasses he could sneak a peek at the kind of curves and smooth flesh that he hadn’t been able to see for months, not since the last time he’d been in the city. There were a few hotties where he was stationed in the South, but they were a different breed, and a Joe had no chance with those women unless they were on vacation and drunk.
But New York City was the East Coast Mecca for hot chicks, Manhattan was anyway. Now he was swimming in it. Hooper knew spending money was how these women made themselves pretty, that buying things was their way and their means to be attractive. It was all an illusion, and Hooper found it very nice to look at.
Surrounded by so many beautiful and stylish young women, Hooper waded through the America that he loved and the America that he had fought for. He could think of no greater symbol for the American Dream than a girl barely twenty years old, her tanned legs stretching out from beneath her swishing skirts, the curve of her breasts pushing her tank top to its limits, as she shopped for more things that she didn’t need.
But some of the fashions were stupid. Though Hooper normally enjoyed the sight of a woman’s dainty toes, flip flops on the streets were impractical, especially in New York City where the streets could be so goddamn filthy. At the end of a day of walking around a girl ended up with a layer of black scum in between her toes and around her toenails. As he walked with Chloe, Hooper noted girl after girl after girl, including Chloe herself, flopping past in flip flops made of plastic, leather, or some combination thereof. At least these chicks weren’t wearing dog tags with fuckin’ rhinestone studs.
Chloe led Hooper into Aldo and the smell of polished, new shoes. Leathery high heels, mules, and flats lined the display counters.
Passing a men’s display, Chloe touched her fingers on a brown leather loafer. The toe of the shoe very nearly came to a point. She laughed.
“I’ll bet you haven’t seen shoes like this for a while,” she said.
“I’ve seen knock-offs,” Hooper answered. “A warlord named Napoleon was partial to loafers like this.”
“We called him that because he was so short.” Hooper held his hand up at shoulder height. “I never knew his real name.”
Chloe crossed the aisle to the women’s shoes.
“Napoleon must’ve been a fashionable guy,” she said.
“Damn right he was. He always wore these beige suits and loafers instead of sandals. He had a trimmed beard and everything, and he was the only hajji I ever saw over there who didn’t wrap a cloth around his head or wear a hat.”
“A real trendsetter, huh?” Chloe smirked. “Popular with the ladies?”
“A real fuckin’ pederast.”
“Eww. That’s with little boys, huh?”
Chloe first picked out a pair of heels to try on. Black, with a dizzying network of gold straps, the shoes were gaudy, but that fit with Chloe’s sense of style. She took a seat and slipped off the flip-flops she had been wearing. Her toes were already turning gray with the city’s grime.
Hooper stood over her as she tried on the shoes. Her bare shoulders looked tan and fleshy beneath the spaghetti straps of her purple dress, and Hooper wanted to bite into her brown, freckled skin. Chloe would probably have giggled.
“I don’t even know why I told Joseph I’d go to this stupid wedding,” she said. “It’s gonna be, like, a real Guido wedding with all these Jersey Italians with big hair and shit.”
“Will the bride have big hair and puffy sleeves?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I miss puffy sleeves. You know what I mean?”
“You’re crazy,” Chloe said. She took off the shoes. “These aren’t right.”
“What sort of thing do you need?”
“You should’ve seen my dress,” she said. “It’s, like, a blue cocktail dress. But backless. Not really backless. But it shows a lot of my back.”
“So you want blue shoes?”
“God, no. That would be impossible to match properly.”
At Aldo, Chloe tried on three pairs of shoes, each pair some variation on the confusing array of straps with a slim heel at the bottom, each pair more than a hundred forty dollars each.
“I don’t think they have what I need here,” Chloe said.
Hooper next followed Chloe to Camper.
“I just want to look,” she said. “I can’t really, y’know. With the dress.”
The shop was full of casual, sneaker-type shoes that were by no means meant for running or jumping or playing, nor would they go with any dress. To Hooper, the shoes were useless.
“Maybe Napoleon would like these,” Chloe said, picking up a purple and green sneaker. She giggled. “More comfortable than loafers.”
“I don’t think I ever saw hajjis with sneakers on,” Hooper said.
“Not even the kids?”
“Most of the kids don’t have shoes,” Hooper said.
Chloe tried on nothing at Camper, but she looked for a long time.
Stepping back outside, they wandered down a sunny cobblestone street, turned past an Asian woman in a tie-dye T-shirt selling crystals, and on a whim, walked into a cosmetics shop. The counters inside, made of a gel-like rubber, were rounded at all their angles. Hooper knocked on one translucent, spongy surface with his knuckles. He had expected it to shake like Jell-O. What was it all for? Perhaps so women in their wobbly heels could bump into the things and feel no pain. The counters were novel, but they did not look good.
Leaving Chloe to sort through an assorted stack of red lipstick tubes, no two of which were the same shade of red, Hooper walked to the long shelf of perfumes and toyed with the idea of buying one for Chloe. A scent would always fit. A woman always felt more beautiful the moment she put one on, didn’t she?
Hooper picked up a thin tab of paper from the cup of tabs of paper. Which scent? There were three different perfumes with the names of pop stars on their labels and two with the names of movie stars. He looked over at Chloe writing on the back of her hand in lipstick. She was definitely more the movie star scent kind of girl.
Hooper sprayed one of the scents on the tab. It smelled strong and fruity. He hated when women smelled like that. The other movie star scent had the name of an older actress on it. He sprayed it on another tab. It smelled like an older actress.
Maybe a scent wasn’t the right thing.
Hooper walked back to Chloe. She had drawn three lines on the back of her hand with three different red lipsticks. One shade was very nearly brown.
“Can we get out of here?” he asked.
“Yeah. Just give me a minute.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Just let me see one more.”
“I’ll wait for you outside.”
“Okay. Fine. I’m coming.”
After the cosmetics shop, Chloe and Hooper stopped at a corner café for a cup of coffee. They sat in the window, watching the other shoppers walk by with oversized paper bags slung over their forearms.
“What can I get you?” The fashionable, waif-like waitress smiled.
“Just a coffee,” Hooper said.
Hooper looked at the menu. Fuck did she say?
“I guess,” he said.
“And for your girlfriend?” the waitress asked.
Hooper looked at Chloe. She looked back at him.
“I’ll have the same,” Chloe said.
“Be right back.”
Hooper watched Chloe watch a woman lead a pocket-sized poodle down the block. They did not mention the waitress’s mistake.
“Aren’t you glad you’re here with me and not over there with Napoleon?” Chloe asked.
Hooper smiled for her, but he wasn’t sure if he was happier here. At least over there he knew where his rifle was.
“Napoleon’s over there with his knock-off loafers, not wearing a hat,” Chloe said. “We’re over here. Some people have knock-offs, but nobody’s got guns.”
As if still accepting the waitress’s mistake when they were done with their coffee, Chloe took Hooper’s arm as they walked in search of the next shoe store. Hooper was getting used to the touch of Chloe’s hand.
They passed beneath the crossing metal rafters of some scaffolding, and despite the shade it gave, the air was warmer and more humid underneath the corrugated metal and the wood.
Hooper said, “This medic told me this story about how some grunts pucked these two hajjis in Napoleon’s territory once.”
“Captured,” Hooper said. “We don’t call them ‘detainees.’ We call them ‘Persons Under Control.’ P-U-C. The difference is political. From there it just becomes a verb. ‘To puck.’”
“I got it.”
“These two cocksuckers, our guys were trying to get some info out of them. Y’know. Hands zip-tied behind their backs. Sandbags over their heads. ‘Where’s Osama?’”
“I’ve seen that on TV,” Chloe said. “I think Prada is down Prince Street.”
“All right. Isn’t Prince that way?”
They paused, looking at the street signs, then turned around, continuing their lazy stroll with the rest of the crowd.
“So the pucks?”
“The PUCs. The interrogators couldn’t get shit out of those two, so Napoleon walks over to the CO and asks, ‘If you please?’ asking permission to interrogate the prisoners. It’s Napoleon’s territory, so the officer’s like, sure. Fuckin’ whatever. Looking up at one PUC, Napoleon struts up to the poor asshole, pulls out a pistol, and shoots the fucker in the face. Bang. Dead. Next, Napoleon sticks the pistol against the other fucker’s face, and tells him to start talking. The second hajji pisses himself, like for real pisses himself, tells everybody everything we wanted to hear and then some. Tells them he wears women’s underwear and likes to masturbate to fuckin’ Girls Gone Wild commercials.”
“Well, right after that guy runs out of things to say, Napoleon pulls the goddamn trigger and shoots that asshole in the head, too. Then, the short fucker puts the pistol back into his pocket and gives a thank you to the CO. Next day, the two dead PUCs are hanging off of a bridge by their necks, holes in their heads, a warning to any other cocksucker who might consider aiding the Taliban in Napoleon’s territory.”
Half the people Hooper told that story to laughed. Chloe didn’t laugh. She was with the half who just looked confused. He felt her give his elbow a little squeeze, and for a moment, she laid her head on his shoulder. He began to hate her.
They walked without speaking, very slowly.
At Prada, Hooper bought Chloe a pair of black, leather high heels. Nice comfortable shoes, they had a heel wide enough that Chloe would not topple over while dancing and a sole wide enough for her large feet.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Chloe said. “They’re black. Black matches anything. They’ll be fine.”
“Good. You have to show me the dress.”
Hooper slid his credit card across the counter to the cashier.
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “It’s blue. Kind of reaches about halfway down my thigh. You’ll like it.” She sighed. “I’ll have to wax my legs.”
The shoes cost Hooper $325 dollars. He knew Chloe would treat them like any other pair of shoes, and wear them only twice.
Lewis Manalo has written nonfiction for Real Travel Magazine, Publishing Perspectives, and the PBS blog, Regarding War. He is the author of the novel, The Sins of Swann Mercury, the first draft of which he wrote during his first deployment to Afghanistan. An experienced filmmaker, he is currently working on his first full-length play, titled BOHICA, and his second novel. Manalo currently lives in New York City.
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