I was digging a pack of American Spirit out of my pocket when he came out onto the smoke deck. He was young and lean but his eyes looked as old as the sea. A nice surprise; I didn’t think I’d find my type underway. And cliché or not, every sailor has a soft spot for Marines.
A gust of wind off the West Pacific snatched the smokes from my hand. Quick as lightning, he leapt forward and caught the pack. He didn’t know it, but I was in his palm, easy as that. He handed me back my smokes.
“Mind if I bum a loosie?” he asked.
I shook one out of the pack, lit it up, and passed it to him before lighting one for myself.
“Sarah,” I said, all the introduction he needed.
“Mike,” he replied, and took a long drag on his cigarette. “A pleasure,” he said, exhaling.
We puffed in silence, leaning on the rails, watching the ship’s wake, a long trail to the horizon, marking the way back home.
“You know,” he said, “I always thought it was unseemly. To see a woman smoking.”
“Funny,” I said. “I was going to tell you the same thing.”
He grinned. And just like that, he was in my palm, too.
The claxon wailed in panicked alert, and the voice of God cried out over the mass communication system, summoning the Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure team. We had a suspicious contact to our starboard bow and my sailors and I had to go take a look.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said, taking one last drag. “Duty calls.” I tossed the cigarette overboard, sending an arcing spiral of smoke over the sea, like ghosts of sailors lost at sea, trapped in Davey Jones’s locker. “Duty calls.”
“Wait,” Mike said. “Where do I find you?”
“It’s a ship,” I said. “You’ll find me.”
And he did, of course. Even if our time was fleeting. Watch officers know no rest. But we always found each other on the smoke deck. And we grew closer, there, than we might have been able to in any dive bar or apartment back home.
We’d been underway nearly two months without a port call, and I was running low on my smokes. In the spirit of rationing, I was sharing mine with Mike, taking a puff and passing it along. I could taste him on the cigarette, relished it, knew he relished my taste, too; when it’s against the law to consummate a relationship at sea, you have to work with what you’ve got.
“So what’s happening with you?” he asked. “After this deployment?”
“Burning all my leave,” I said. “Going to tear it up all across wine country. Try to forget I’m in the goddamn Navy and that the end of this float only means I get to train for the next one. How about you?”
The wind caught a hair, pulled it loose from my bun. He risked a touch, tucked it back behind my ear.
“Burning all my leave,” he said. “Try to forget I’m in the Marine Corps. And try not to think about where my battalion is going next. It’s not another float.”
We didn’t say anything for awhile, and simply stared at the wake instead. Too much talk about the future was exquisitely awful. The ugly inconvenience of more deployments, and of wars most of the country had forgotten, and what they could mean for me, and Mike, and any hope for what we might have when we had dry land under our feet again, was harrowing.
Mike did us the favor of turning our thoughts back to the present and the joy, however fleeting, it brought us.
”But if it’s up to me, I’ll take the sea over the desert.”
He looked me up and down. “Better company.”
The claxon wailed, another call for tribute, this time for an air assault drill.
“My turn, this time,” Mike said. “I get to play dead weight inside of an Osprey.”
He pulled his hand back to throw the cigarette overboard. I caught his wrist.
“Come with me,” I said. My voice cracked, a traitor, belying the need for him that grew like a seed in the pit of my stomach.
“Wine country,” I said. “When we get home.”
“It’s a date,” he said, grinning. I plucked the cigarette from his hand and he trotted off to kit up and head to the bird. I finished the smoke, savoring the taste of his lips, the closest thing to a kiss he could give me.
I was on the bridge when the Osprey went down. I was one of the first to know there was no way Mike could have survived. The sea was hungry and chewed up the Osprey like the foil on an Easter chocolate. The debris from the crash put up an arcing spiral of smoke off the sea, like a burnt offering to a pagan god. Everyone on board died. We never found Mike’s body.
After we got back to the States, I still went to wine country. I wore a sun dress and dolled myself up every day, took drives along the coast with the top down and my hair up, an homage to Audrey Hepburn, the woman I wanted to be for a man of my own like Mike.
I thought the tears would come when the sun went down and the wine flowed like water, or with the agonized hangovers that bit like a crown of thorns. But real tears need a heart, and mine was at the bottom of the sea, locked up tight in Davy Jones’s locker. So instead I cling to all I have left, the ugly inconvenience of another deployment and a pack of American Spirit, and I try to taste Mike’s lips on my cigarette as I hold it in my mouth.
Brian Kerg is an active duty Marine and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His fiction has appeared The Deadly Writer’s Patrol, O-Dark-Thirty, and Line of Advance. His non-fiction has appeared in War on the Rocks, The Strategy Bridge, Proceedings, and The Marine Corps Gazette. He is currently stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.