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Fiction #130
(published April 17, 2003)
Taking Leave (part 2 of 2)
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

When Eddie thinks Leah is finally asleep, he gets out of bed and switches on the lamp sitting on the dresser. He waits and when there is no complaint from her, he gets back into bed, leans back on his feet and watches her. She's asleep on her side, the fetal position, wearing nothing but underwear. Hers, this time. After lovemaking, she shuffles through their clothing on the floor until she finds a pair and put them on. Hers. His. It makes no difference; she just wants "to keep her ass covered."

When she was fifteen and going on her first date, she chose to wear a black mini-skirt, which had her mother's approval. Her date arrived and waited in the foyer, at the foot of the stairs, with her father. As she descended, a smile arose on her date's face, a scowl on her father's.

"You're not going anywhere with your ass out like that!" he'd growled.

Leah burst into tears, ran back into her room and did not have a first date until she attended a nearby community college.

That's the only story she's ever told him, relating the tale when they'd first had sex and she wouldn't lie still afterwards so he could hold her. Not until her ass was covered, she'd said. It's the only story Eddie knows about her family life, and he thinks there is nothing uncommon about it. Sometimes if she's wearing his underwear — boxers — he'll put his fingers inside the fly and tickle or caress her, as if it adds something to her tale.

Eddie takes Leah by an arm and slowly turns her over onto her back. She groans, but doesn't wake. His dog tags lay near her neck, on the bed, the chain zigzagging across her throat. He reaches for them, straightening the chain and placing the small metal sheets between her breasts.

She wears them, she said, to remind herself to whom she belongs. Eddie thinks that's part of it; he's never told her he also thinks it's to prove to others that he really does exist since he's rarely around and she doesn't have a wedding band.

He examines her body for change since he saw her last. In some of the sporadic notes she wrote last in response to his letters, she had mentioned getting her belly button or something pierced, or maybe a tattoo, but there are no ornaments in her tongue, navel, or lips. Her skin is still white and unblemished, albeit sweaty and gummy. Eddie didn't tell her he thought she'd be too afraid to do the piercing, but he had expected her to possibly follow through with the tattoo. She said she wanted something to remind her of him when he was away. He wouldn't expect her to get a heart or a rose with his name dancing across it; he thought she'd get something like the Marine insignia.

Eddie glances at the clock. It's almost four in the morning. Leaning over the side of the mattress, he shakes several of the cans on the floor until he finds one with beer still in it. It's flat, but he drinks it anyway. When he is assured that every can on the floor is empty, Eddie lies down next to his wife and looks up at the ceiling. Sex calms her down, eases her nervous edge. Eddie wishes he could let go as easily. After awhile, Leah groans and turns over. The light shining on him, Eddie, alert and at attention, continues to lie perfectly still.

Later he wakes to find himself alone in bed. Stumbling off the mattress, he makes his way to the doorway and he finds Leah sitting on the couch, her foot propped up on the coffee table. He watches as she dabs her toes with purple polish.

"Good morning," she says without looking up.

Eddie stretches. He asks if it's still morning.

"Afternoon, then," Leah says sharply.

"Hey, loosen up," Eddie tells her, going to her. He leans forward for a kiss, but Leah wrinkles her nose.

"You need a shower," she says.

Eddie mumbles that he never got to it the day before and Leah suggests he take one now.

"Hey, fix me breakfast, okay?" he tells her.

Leah wrinkles her face.

"You're my wife, remember?"

Leah laughs sarcastically. "Do you?" Still she rises and heads toward the kitchen.

Back in the bedroom, Eddie glances at the clock radio on the dresser. It's 1:30. Ten minutes later, he's out of the shower and sitting at the island table in just a pair of athletic shorts, waiting for Leah to be done with his food. He reminds himself not to rush her, despite his hunger.

Already nauseated, preparing food only sickens her more. Too, the mess they made last night — the tray of half-eaten tortillas chips doused with beans and jalapenos, the mini chicken bones stripped clean of meat and barbeque sauce and the uncooked broccoli sitting in a tub of yellowing Ranch dressing, all of it sitting amidst the plastic bags and aluminum wrap — is in her way, and she curses each time her soles stick to the kitchen floor.

Eddie listens to the clink of his dog tags as they move against each other with Leah's movements. She gets through the act of scrambling eggs and frying bacon, and she tosses the plate with food at him carelessly, resentful that that he can eat heartily following a drunken binge and keep it down.

She washes her hands, returns to the couch and begins painting her nails.

"Are you going to see your parents while you're here?" she asks.

Eddie grunts. It wasn't on the agenda.

"I think you should," Leah tells him.

He ignores her suggestion, grunts again and continues to eat. He is sure she only wants him out of her way.

His mother and father are in the living room, but they don't hear him come up the walk. Eddie stands on the porch watching them: his father, one leg crossed over the other, only the lower part of his body visible under the open newspaper. His mother sits in the chair adjacent to him, with some kind of sewing in her hands.

Eddie can't make himself walk right on in as if this were still his home, but he doesn't want to think that he's that much of a stranger that he should have to knock. He clears his throat loudly and his parents look up simultaneously, lowering the paper and cloth to their laps, respectively.

"Well, I'll be," his father says.

His mother rises, setting her work quickly aside and heads for the door.

"If it ain't GI Joe," his father continues, taking his time about folding the newspaper and putting it aside.

Eddie is stiff in his mother's embrace, although he closes his arms awkwardly around her back. When they step away from each other, his mother is crying and immediately Eddie feels even more uncomfortable. She pulls a tissue from her pocket and says, "I'm just so glad to see you."

"Now Ma," his father consoles. He turns to his son.

Eddie is ready to go on the defensive, but his father smiles at him.

"The Army, huh? I would have preferred you be a Navy man, myself, but what the hell." He pats Eddie on the back. Twice. Then he shakes his hand.

Eddie is staying for an early dinner and he calls Leah to let her know. Even though it was her suggestion that he visit his parents, she's irritated that he won't be home when she leaves for work.

"I'm not leaving the door unlocked for you," she says.

Eddie tells her he'll go by the bar later and get the keys.

"Fine," she responds and hangs up.

"I'll do that," Eddie says, aware that his parents' eyes are on him, then he says, "I love you, too" and hangs up the phone. Turning, he smiles, joins his parents at the table and opens the beer his father has set before him.

"So," his mother begins, as she spoons food onto plates and passes them to her husband and son, "when do you and Leah plan to start having children?"

Eddie grunts; she's yet to give him a house key. But he says, "We're still discussing it," although he knows it will not be anytime soon. He had suggested Leah have a baby in response to her complaints of loneliness, but she rejected the idea.

"You're not saddling me with a kid in case this doesn't work out," she'd said.

"A kid?" his father says. "That can wait. Hell, he's joined the service, gotten married — he doesn't have to do all his growing up at once."

Eddie questions the growing up part.

"Give him a chance to get used to having a wife to support," his father continues. "Twenty-six years and hell, I still ain't used to it." His father laughs heartily, looking at Eddie.

Eddie wants to be his buddy, but he can only give his father a wry grin. He cannot bring himself to laugh in the face of his mother's discomfort.

Leah is not at the counter when Eddie finally gets to the bar. Kim, a waitress, is minding the register, and suggesting beer to everyone who asks for a drink because she needs only to open a bottle and pour. Leah, she tells Eddie, is in the back room, getting another case of tequila.

Eddie goes to find her. He knocks on the partially opened door and Leah says, "Yeah?"

"It's me," he tells her. "Eddie."

Leah pulls the door open, but doesn't say anything. She looks him over and then returns to her work. "Is Kim doing okay?" she asks and Eddie tells her yes, that there's not a crowd and she's handling it.

"This place is a mess," Leah says as she takes bottles of liquor from half-filled boxes and combines them, categorically, into full ones.

Eddie watches her while she works, his dog tags hanging from her neck as she bends over and breaks down the cardboard boxes. She tosses the flat cartons into a pile near Eddie. "Did you have a nice dinner?"

"It was okay," Eddie tells her, although he is more eager to share how quiet the evening was — no yelling, his father keeping his fists to himself. He'd acquired some status with his parents and, for the first time in a long while, although he wasn't completely comfortable, he didn't feel like an unknown in his parents' company.

"How's your Mom?"

He shrugs. "She's okay." He tells her his mother was so surprised to see him, and that she cried. "She said she wished it hadn't taken so long for me to visit."

"It could've been sooner," Leah tells him without making eye contact. "Except you had other things to do. Or people," she adds bitterly.

Eddie knew this was coming and maybe he even deserved it, but he's surprised and can't think of what to say in response. He finally says, "Would it be different if I hadn't of done it or if I hadn't of told you?"

Leah stares at him incredulously. "Is it only a crime if you're caught Eddie? Is that what you're saying?" She's angry, her cheeks red. "How does something like that just happen?"

He attempts to shrug and it angers her, his indifference. She walks over to him and shoves him in the chest. Caught off-guard, Eddie falls against the wall.

Leah reaches out to take a swing at him, but Eddie catches her wrist. In trying to wrestle away, Leah causes the both of them to fall to the floor, she on top of him. Angrily she presses her lips against his, kissing him and kissing him until it turns to something more. Eddie feels her teeth biting, as if she means to draw blood. Still he has an erection.

Her hands are unbuttoning his jeans, pulling the zipper tab down. She is wearing a sundress and it rides up her hips as she straddles his legs. She doesn't remove her underwear, simply stretches the material aside as she plunges herself on him. His dog tags tap against his chest as she heaves against him. Eddie cannot believe how her mood excites him and he moves in her with the same angry intensity.

It ends as quickly as it started. Eddie is surprised to find Leah close to tears when it's over. She pushes herself from him, murmuring "you bastard" before disconnecting herself without another word. She walks to the washroom, takes a moment to clean herself up, then she silently reenters the storage room, wiping her hands against her dress.

"I guess it could just happen," she tells Eddie bitterly, not even bothering to look at him as she lifts the box of tequila she went in for and leaves the room.

Eddie sits on the floor, wondering what she wanted. If he showed no interest, he was sure she'd have accused him of not desiring her. But responding seemed to make him look capable of humping anything.

Eddie sighs as he stands, pulls his pants closed although he doesn't zip them. He staggers to the washroom and turns on the faucet. Reaching for the bar of soap, he's surprised to find the chain with his dog tags curled there on the sink.

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