By Jennifer Cornet
The anchor looks less blue under the dismal, cloudy sky. I would call it hazy gray or ash white. It sits perched in its corner, surrounded by black metal bars and dusty brick walls. Behind it, a barren field of dirt and building debris and in front of it only half trampled bushes; a sad attempt at landscaping. Nothing about this says strength, or unity, or power. Even the vases full of yellow water and long dead flowers, strewn about on the ground at its feet bring a sadness to the marker. It is neglected and lonely and I can’t help but feel pity for the steel as I stand on sidewalk, just outside the gates.
The traffic flows smoothly into the Navy Yard. Even at the height of morning rush hour, there is little back up by foot or car. The guards work swiftly, bundled up in fluffy jackets and warm fleece gloves keeping the constant stream of workers flooding the base in motion. It only stops for the morning colors.
As the last note echoes through the biting November air, I have to remind myself to keep moving. I cannot waste the entire morning staring at the anchor although I feel like it wants me to. My finger tips are beginning to numb and I can no longer feel the warmth of my coffee seeping through the insulated layers of my thermos. I should get to my desk and enjoy it before I am forced to drink the swill in the mess instead.
The office is already quietly buzzing as I set my bag down on the floor in the tiny cubical I share. Haley is already in, which I expected, and already on her phone. She doesn’t even acknowledge me anymore. The back of our chairs often touch, we can’t both stand up at the same time in the cramped space, yet if I stopped coming in to work I don’t believe she would notice. It is as if my entire half of our shared space ceases to exist. But it could be worse, I guess. She could want to tell me all about what her dog did yesterday rather than whomever she was yapping to on the other end of the line.
“Good Morning, Jack,” Mary says from the other side of the short wall. She looks up at me through the pink rims of her reading glasses and smiles slightly. Her usually faded red hair looks more vibrate today than normal. Perhaps she dyed it last night.
Am I allowed to comment on that? I wonder to myself. Is that like complimenting someone on their nose job? I don’t know so instead I opt for a simple “Hello.”
It isn’t until past four that I find the need to say another word.
“Have a good night, Jack,” Mary taps the divider that separate our spaces.
“You too,” I smile back at her, doing the best I can to make it seem genuine. Mary is a sweet lady, although I never knew who she was beyond an email address until two months ago when we all were “consolidated.” She seems to know everyone in the office, even the folks from other divisions. She always says “hi” and has hints of a southern accent that make me want to ask her where she is from. I bet Mary would notice if I didn’t come in to work.
Daylight savings time makes for a depressing walk home. It isn’t even five o’clock and already it feels like I should be in bed. I force myself to walk the long way out of the yard; through the back door, towards the water, then looping around to walk up Isaac Hull Ave, the road that passes in front of the building. There are chain-link fences in front of it now, covered in thin black material, but that only shield the first floor from view. I walk by it twice a day in hopes that one day it will stop seeming like a five story tall monster looming over me.
I should have taken the Metro. I had thought about it, it was only a few short blocks away on my end, and quick cab ride once I got off in Arlington. The next train was coming in eight minutes according to the app. I had plenty of time to get there. But the Metro takes too long and they always seem to be doing work on whatever line I’m using and I didn’t want to get stuck on the platform at the end of another disappointing night only to see the next train wouldn’t be arriving for 20 minutes.
Plus, it was cold. If I took the train I would freeze in the short distance from here to the station, then the below ground stop would undoubtable be sweltering, the heat on the train would inevitably be broken, followed by a hot climb up the escalators out of the tunnel only to be smacked in the face by the cold wind and return to a freezing state. It all seemed like a recipe for a head cold. I don’t have enough sick leave right now to facilitate that. A rental car was the simplest solution.
“I’m here for the…uh,” I stammered to the attractive hostess standing just inside the door of EatBar. She was short and trim, wrapped in a fuzzy blue scarf to ward off the cold each patron brought in with them. I could feel my cheeks heat up and redden despite the chill as a mild wave of embarrassment washed over me. I didn’t want to admit what I was here for, not to her.
“Right this way,” she smiled at me with a mixture of knowing and pity.
I listened to the lady as she recited the directions a bit too enthusiastically. Rules of speed-dating aren’t exactly exciting, but she seemed determined to at least hold everyone’s attention while she went through them. She added puns whenever she could and I had to remind myself not to roll my eyes. I made that mistake once before. I met a wonderful nurse named Meghan but she said I was rude to the coordinators. We had sat in awkward silence until they called for us to switch seats. Now, I’m much more mindful.
“Hi, I’m Sara,” the first woman offered as she nervously twirled her wine glass stem. If I had to guess, I would put her in her late twenties, only slightly younger than myself. She was not someone I would call “my type.” Although, having not had a serious relationship since I got my Master’s degree, I didn’t really know that I could qualify myself with having a type.
“Jack. Pleased to meet you, Sara.” I always made it a point of repeating people’s names. If I don’t, I forget them instantly. In this case it hardly mattered as we all had on helpful name tags. “So, where are you from?”
“Here. Mostly. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia all my life. What about you?”
“I’m from Raleigh.”
“Oh, so not too far away. What brought you to the area then?”
I could feel the pit grow in my stomach. In the past two months I have gotten adept at seeing the question coming. I knew where this conversation was going but I had no way to avoid it. If I changed the subject now, there might be a way to steer clear. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as good at that skill set quite yet.
“What do you do?” Sara asked eagerly.
“I’m an engineer for the Navy.”
Sara wasn’t like some who were slower to put the pieces together. It was almost instant that her eyebrows arched and squished together and her expression turned to concern. “Oh,” she said sadly. “Where you there?”
And there it was: that question. The question that followed me around like a shadow or a plague. That disrupted family occasions, interviews, and casual lunches alike. The question that opens the relief value in my memory and lets the dark cloud of that day seep back to the forefront of my mind.
I forced myself not to wince at the question’s presence. Sara doesn’t know the weight of what she has asked. How could she. She doesn’t know that because she has brought it up I will go home tonight and wonder if the sounds in the hallway are more than my drunken neighbors stumbling in from a night of drinking, if they are really sounds of him.
“Yes. 197 was my building. But they have us in 201 now. What do you do for a living?” I try to change the subject.
“I’m a teacher. Did you know anyone?” She ignores my attempts and tries to feed her own morbid curiosity. Sara has leaned in, as if I’m going to tell her a secret. She has stopped fidgeting with her glass as if talking about something so sensational has distracted her from her nerves.
I should politely decline to answer. Or lie. I could always lie and force the conversation down a different path. I could stop talking and wait until our two minutes is up and then hope the girl to her left has a little more tact and doesn’t bring this up.
That is what I should do.
But I can’t seem to force the words from bubbling up. Before I can stop them, they spew from my mouth.
“How dare you ask me such a distasteful thing? If I knew anyone would that make you feel more pity for me? Would it be a bigger scar, could you rationalize me being more damaged? If I was right there, and saw him, would you want to go out on a second date so we could talk all about it and you could comfort me? Would you tell your friends how much I’ve been through as if it is a badge of honor?”
I can feel my voice rising, but it is beyond my power to return it to a normal talking level. Sara is leaning back, looking around on either side of her. I can tell she is startled, but I can’t find it in me to feel pity. Instead I keep going.
“Or if I was far away from it, if I never saw anything, would you think I was weak for not wanting to talk about it? That I was ‘less broken’ than the others? That my fears aren’t justified because I wasn’t in danger after all?”
There is more to say. I want to tell her that I am more than this one trivial fact, more than one event that happened in my life, but the knot in my throat is growing so large I can hardly swallow. My neck is red with anger and my eyes have started to burn with the promise of embarrassing tears. It is only then I notice the entire room has stop talking and is staring at me, the freak yelling at a poor girl in the middle of speed-dating. Even the coordinator stands at the front of the room with her mouth gaping wide in shock.
Before anyone can throw me out, I push my chair back and head for the door. I walk right by the coat check at the front of the restaurant. I’ll buy a new one tomorrow. It is not worth the prolonged humiliation to wait for the hostess to try and find the cheap pea coat anyway.
I don’t even feel the cold as I walk back to my pint-size rental. All I can think of is having to explain this to my doctor next week. And here we thought I was getting better. The notion makes me chuckle a little. Apparently not.
The soft pitter of running feet on cement followed by a muffled “Wait!” pulls me from my thoughts. She is a block behind me, but I can tell I am who she is calling.
She looks like a sleeping bag running towards me in a giant green puffy jacket with fur lining around the hood. It takes a moment, but I recognize her as the girl who was sitting to my right only moments ago. Her expression is soft, even though she is panting and gasping for air in the cold night. Her breath makes tiny white clouds.
She extends a bare hand towards me, “Hi. I’m Ann.”
I shake her hand, uncertain of what exactly is happening.
Didn’t she just see what happened? Why in the world has she come out in the cold to meet me?
“I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007. Want to grab a drink?” she asks bluntly.
She grins at me and I can feel my chest warm. Suddenly even my shoulders feel lighter. The dark cloud that hovered over me dissipates quicker than it ever formed. And for a moment the relief is overwhelming. I don’t have to fear the question because she knows I won’t ask it of her.
I nod and allow myself to smile. “That sounds great.”
Jennifer Cornet is a freelance writer, novelist, and engineer living in Springfield, Virginia. She is a contributing author of Guidelines for Marine Forensic Investigations (available through sname.org). The Elements of Ink series is her first published fiction work. She can be found on the web at jennifercornet.com.
Photo Credit: U.S.S. Chicago Anchor by Zol87