High on Haight (part three)

Henry met Nikki at a barrack’s party. She was a friend of Specialist Olsen’s girlfriend and Olsen was throwing a party because it was a Wednesday and he didn’t have to work. Henry was two weeks stop lossed and he sat in the corner next to the keg drinking Bud Light heavily. Music pumped from the stereo and two privates from fourth platoon played football on the TV. The MPs had been by twice, but only to tell Olsen that there had better be beer left when they got off duty. Smoke hung from the ceiling in a thick gray haze making it look as if the room was on fire. One of the privates, the losing one, smashed a cigarette out on the carpet. Henry hadn’t seen Olsen in quite a while.

“Hi,” she said, sitting on the bed next to him. “I’m Nikki.”

“Hi,” Henry said, shaking her hand. It was small and warm and wet. She wore baggy blue jeans and a Kentucky sweatshirt and her brown hair was pulled back tight and her face was bright and wide and she was smiling at him.

“I’m friends with Katie,” she said.

“Who?” Henry said, pumping the keg while she filled her red cup.

“Katie,” she said. “Jeff’s girlfriend.”

“Oh,” Henry said, filling his own cup. “Who’s Jeff?”

She laughed, her head thrown back. Henry counted her fillings. Her tongue was very pink. “Jeff,” she said. “This is his party. His room.”

“Ah,” Henry said. “Olsen.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Him. And what’s your name?”

“Henry,” Henry said.

“Is that your first name, or last? Because it could be both you know.”

“Last,” he said. “My first name is Specialist.”

“Yeah right. Really, what’s your name?”

He looked at her. Her ears were small but stuck out like radar dishes, her lips slightly open and wet from the beer, she was leaning into him, waiting for his answer. It had been a long time since anyone cared what his name was. “Richard,” he said. “But nobody’s called me that since grade school.”


Henry shrugged his shoulders. “I guess Henry’s easier to say. And Richard was my daddy’s name and I haven’t seen or heard from him since I was in the sixth grade.”

She scowled, her eyebrows pinching her eyes together. “Are you Military Police too?”

“Afraid so,” he said. “Traffic. I’m the one who writes speeding tickets.”

“Then I’ll be sure to drive slow,” she said and took a long drink. “Who’s that?” She pointed with her cup to a girl standing by the door, surrounded by boys in poorly fitting jeans with mouths hanging open and their hair cut high-and-tight. The girl had bright orange hair curling to her shoulders, red lips, a tight blue shirt highlighting her bra straps, short jean skirt, and white legs ending in calf-length black boots.

“I don’t know her name,” Henry said. “Some new girl in first platoon.”

“Shit,” Nikki said. “I’d like to wrap those legs around my head.”

“You and every guy on Knox,” Henry said. “Wait? What?”

She smiled at him and he drank more beer, his hope crashing softly to the floor.

“I don’t think she’s gay,” Henry said. “I think she’s got a boyfriend over in one of the armored companies.”

“You’d be surprised,” Nikki said.

“I’m sure I would be,” Henry said, filling and emptying his cup again and again.

He watched a card game in the opposite corner. A group from second platoon playing Asshole. Empty cans of beer piled around the players, full and half-full cans sloshing around on the table. “Hey beer bitch,” one of them yelled at another, “get me another beer.” Nikki started coughing, a small sound like a squirrel chirping at a puppy.

“You want to go down to my car?” she asked. “It’s loud in here and all this smoke is making me want to faint.”

“Sure,” he said.

The air outside was cold and clean, the ground patchy with snow and ice and they made their way slowly to a tan Honda or Toyota or something like that. Once inside, Nikki started the car and they shivered waiting for the heat.

“So, Henry,” Nikki said, reaching between her legs and pulling a small brown box out from under her seat. “How long have you been in the Army?”

“Eight years,” Henry said.

“Jesus,” she said. “You making a career of it?”

“Fuck no,” he said, finishing his beer and wishing he had brought more. “I was supposed to be done two weeks ago.”

Nikki slid open the box, pulled out a baggie and some rolling papers.

“But Bush wants to go to war with the world, so I have to stay.”

“They can do that?” Nikki asked, crumbling what looked like dried broccoli apart onto a glossy fashion magazine she had found in the backseat.

“I guess so,” Henry said, looking out the window. The car was warming and he had to take a piss. “I didn’t read the contract too carefully when I signed so I guess it’s my own fault. But fucking Bush. What’s he want to invade Iraq for anyway? Just because he’s mad at Saddam for embarrassing his dad? Fucking asshole.”

“I thought you Army guys were all Republicans,” Nikki said, rolling the joint up and licking it closed.

“I used to be,” Henry said. “Hey, what’s that you got?”

“A joint,” she said.

“A marijuana joint?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Have you never seen a joint before, Henry?”

“No,” he said. “I went to Catholic school.”

She laughed, a short burst of air through her nose. “So, do you want to smoke?”

Henry thought about all those “Just Say No” videos, about cops telling them marijuana was a gateway drug, telling them that if they smoked even one joint they’d soon be snorting cocaine and shooting heroin and living in boxes on the streets and nobody would ever love them. But here was Nikki, all pretty and put together, lighting the end of a joint. He was watching his country waving their American flags made in China and rushing hopefully into a war none of them would have to fight. He was just beginning to see the lie in everything he’d ever been taught. He was drunk. And he was very angry. And he said, “Sure, fuck it.”

She smiled and handed him the joint. The smell was sweet and pungent, a bit like a skunk. He’d smelled this before at a Kid Rock concert up in Louisville but never knew what it was. He was the most naïve twenty-four year-old he’d ever known.

“How do I do it?” he asked.

“Just put it to your lips and inhale,” she said.

He did and started coughing so hard he thought he was going to die. “Holy shit,” he said, his eyes blurring. “That’s rough.”

“Here,” she said, taking the joint from him. “This is really your first time?”

“It really is.”

“Cool,” she said, inhaling deeply and then blowing white smoke into the air. “I love popping cherries.” The smoke curled and spread through the moving air. “I’ll shotgun it for you,” she said.

“What is that? Shotgun?”

“I’ll blow the smoke into your mouth while you inhale,” she said. “It makes it a little less harsh.”

“Okay,” he said, liking the sound of this.

She took another hit and leaned into him and blew smoke into his mouth. Her eyes were closed and he leaned in and kissed her. Her lips were cold and dry. She put her hand on his chest and pushed him back gently. “Too close,” she said.

“Sorry,” he said, but didn’t feel the burning shame or rage he should have. Everything was changing.

They listened to some Radiohead and Henry watched light dance off the hoods of the parked cars and after a little while Nikki asked, “Ready to go back up?”

“Sure,” he said, startled. He’d forgotten she was there. “But I don’t think I can move.”

“Ha!” She shut off the car. “Sure you can. Just remember how.”

And they were back in the cold air and back at the loud party. Henry had left his cup in the car. He remembered suddenly that he had to piss very very badly.

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