Once a student at our very own Towson University, Erin Gibbons no longer lives in Baltimore, but has decided to join the BrickHouse Books team to put her skills to use at the city’s oldest publishing house! Along with giving Erin a warm welcome, here’s a short story she’s decided to share with us titled “On Holiday.” Enjoy!
––Kate Surles, Online Editor
I waited for Ivy in the lobby for an hour before she finally stumbled in through the automatic doors. I had only left her a ten-minute walk away from the hotel with both Greg and the map, so I felt prepared with a counterargument should anyone (her especially) try to say that I abandoned her in a foreign country while she was incapacitated. Fuck your incapacitated, I would tell her, No matter what day of the year it is or what country you’re in, you don’t get so incapacitated that you ditch your friend in the biggest and rowdiest crowd she’s ever seen, let her get felt up there by some random Italian guy, and allow her to nearly lose her passport and her cash to a professional pickpocket. Then, you don’t refuse to listen to her once she eventually bails out of there and finds you the drunkest you’ve ever been in your life just before the clock hits midnight, screaming and crying at your boyfriend beside some uncomfortable man selling novelty Pope hats emblazoned with “2009” in glistening rhinestones. That’s what I would have said, and that was why I hadn’t felt that bad leaving her alone (with Greg and the map), still yelling down the road at me as I walked off toward the hotel. She’s seen a lot fucking worse, my brain had spat in that moment, even as a cold wave of guilt and shame over my own innocence washed over me.
The lights in the lobby had dimmed since we left earlier that evening and now, somewhere near two a.m., they obscured the paperwork scattered across the empty desk of the receptionist, cloaked the closed-down bar in shadow, masked the drunkenness of the New Year’s revelers returning to the safety of their hotel mattresses and its cloudy pillows. I felt glad that the dark hid the blood of my two skinned and burning knees. I slumped into a sticky leather chair that had a clear view of the elevator bank and the automatic doors. I tried to read yesterday’s newspaper, but I was still too angry, and all I could get out of it was that the Mayor of Rome was either really angry about something or had cholera, and that my Italian, after three years of studying it, still really blows.
So I sat. I found another map and traced where I planned to sightsee tomorrow should Ivy and Greg decide that they had had a really rough night and needed to sleep it off, which I knew they would do, which was all they had done since I flew to Italy after Christmas and met them at their base, USAG Vicenza, last week—and those were only weeknights. My finger followed winding roads to the Colosseum (where I decided would cut off Ivy’s head if she made it back alive tonight), the Trevi Fountain (where I would wash my hands of this trip), and St. Peter’s Basilica (where I would pray for forgiveness for my sins before going home).
A voice in my head that sounded like my mother started talking to me in soothing voices and I folded up the map, set it neatly on the table, and tried to ignore the sour worry taste rising in my throat. I didn’t want to talk to Ivy when she got back—I wanted to wait until the morning, when we’d both cooled off—but I needed to see her to know that she made it back to the hotel in one piece. Stupid, really, when you think about the fact that she spent nearly a year in a combat zone and I was okay with hearing from her about once a month. I tried to breathe steadily. I chipped the gold polish on my thumbnail into the shape of Wisconsin. Then Portugal. Then the Falklands. Soon I left myself with only an empty pink sea.
My knees itched. I watched the minute hand swing around the clock and tried not to think about the way Ivy looked before I left her, trying to hail a cab in the middle of the street. There in her eyes, after she yelled at me and pushed me onto the ground (I don’t need you to fucking save me, Charlotte!), I had seen a glazed and hazy sheen that reminded me of someone else. Then, and, now, this made my stomach turn, since Ivy was my best friend. Best friends don’t remind you of anyone; other people remind you of best friends. I wondered if that was how Ivy always looked to the members of her platoon, if this was how other people saw her after a bomb exploded, maybe after she, a medic, couldn’t save the hurt guy’s leg, so she drank Listerine until she got sick and different and, to me, someone else. If stuff like that even happened to her while she was deployed. I didn’t know because she had never told me.
Just as I was about to grab my coat and head back out into the city to look for her, fueled by anger and something like guilt, the automatic doors shhhhhhed open and Ivy and Greg came in. Apparently the two of them had passed through all the stages of grief within the last few post-meltdown hours and had sublimated to blissful acceptance, which they expressed by hanging all over each other and pulling off each other’s clothes before they had even made it into the elevator. For some reason, this reignited the embers of anger that had been smoldering in some deep part of my brain, and my foot started going. They pulled away from each other long enough for Greg to hit the up elevator button. Like some spy in a terrible mystery movie, I watched the scene from behind the unfolded map. Ivy groaned and yanked her dress down her leg a little more, covering up the muscles she’d earned doing PT with her platoon since she graduated from college and enlisted in the army three years ago.
They stood there, watching the little indicator light track the elevator’s progress down from the tenth floor.
That was really fun, Ivy said. Best New Years I’ve ever had.
Ivy ran her hand through Greg’s hair. I could tell she was still drunk because of how her voice sounded like she was a little bit underwater, and the way her hand listed and only nearly missed jamming Greg in the eye.
Most of it was, yeah, Greg said.
He held Ivy by the small of her back.
I promise I’m never gonna get this drunk again, okay? she slurred.
You say that every time, he said.
My stomach fell into my feet. I realized this was not, as I had thought, the drunkest Ivy had ever been in her life; it was only the drunkest I had ever seen her. You could have sailed a ship between the gulf I felt form between us then.
The indicator light ticked down to the fourth floor and lingered there.
Hurry up, Ivy said.
They both bounced on their toes a little, stood silently.
You think Charlotte made it back okay? Greg asked after a minute.
I put the map down on the table.
Ivy adjusted the straps of her dress. She coughed.
I’ll knock on her door when we get upstairs, she said.
I chewed the inside of my cheek. The indicator light blinked leftward.
I know she’s mad at me, Ivy said. I just wish I knew why.
My brain went numb with an are you kidding me kind of incredulousness.
Greg rubbed Ivy’s lower back.
She’s fine, Greg said. It was just a little mixup back there. She’ll understand.
A firework exploded somewhere outside and both Greg and Ivy flinched. They pivoted and stood back to back, scanning the lobby, their eyes suddenly alert, alive, sobered as the firework’s red glow filled the dark room. Watching them like this, I suddenly felt like I had intruded upon something, like I was studying animals at the zoo: examining the movements of something exotic, foreign, alien. Something not like me. I was surprised at how much more I wanted to know about them, and how much I realized I didn’t know. I hadn’t moved.
Ivy’s shoulders slumped when she saw no apparent sign of danger, except, perhaps, me. Whether they fell in grief or relief, I couldn’t tell. She twinkled her fingers at me, like nothing had happened between us, and my anger welled up again.
The elevator dinged and its metal doors slid open, waiting to receive them.
Go ahead up, Greg, Ivy said.
He stared at us, the Are you sure? in his eyes obvious.
I’ll see you in a few minutes, she said.
The doors hissed shut and Greg disappeared as Ivy crossed the lobby and sat down in the leather chair opposite me. She said Heeeeeyyyy to me with the vowels all drawn out like I was an inarticulate four-year-old. Whatever curiosity and sympathy I had felt evaporated as my veins squeezed thin and tight inside me. I looked in Ivy’s eyes for the first time since she had screamed at me on the street. The glazed look was still there, but it was less than before.
Is everything okay, Char? she said.
You left me, I thought. Her false innocence made my head spin and my tongue get tangled in my throat.
We can talk about it in the morning, I said.
Ivy didn’t say anything and only cast her eyes down to the marble floor. On the way I guess she noticed the holes torn in my pantlegs from where I fell, because she gasped and reached out to touch me, hard at first, and then gently.
I’ll buy you new ones, she said.
This isn’t about my pants, I said.
What is it about, then?
My heart burned like it used to before I would climb on the bus on the first day of school, or when I had to call my deaf great-grandmother on her birthday, or when I stepped up to the podium at a debate team competition. I had said this speech to Ivy a hundred times in my head but I couldn’t say it now. I busied myself with the map. I read road names. Piazza del Colosseo. Via dei Fori Imperiali. Largo Guglielmo Gatti. I knew couldn’t pronounce them right if I tried.
Ivy snapped her fingers in my face. That dark look had come back into her eyes, except there was something colder in it now, something without emotion that I could not name.
I said, what is it about, then?
Via delle Carine. Via 20 Settembre. Via Marco Aurelio.
Ivy kicked her boots up onto the coffee table. Water droplets scattered and stained the newspaper and old magazines.
You’re furious, she said.
I’m not, I said.
You’ve never been madder at me in your life, she said.
I wouldn’t say that, I said, and for the most part I meant it, but the more she told me I was mad the more mad I got, and the more justified I felt in my anger, and pretty quickly I could tell that soothing voice from earlier was just waiting to give me some kind of instructions, so I preempted it. I folded the map up again and sat it on the table.
I’m going to bed, I said.
I tried to silence this other voice in my head that was less a voice than a sound, high and angry, unintelligible and furious with my friend.
I just wanted to make sure you made it back okay.
Please, Charlotte, tell me what’s wrong, she said.
You were a bad friend tonight. We can talk about it in the morning, I said.
I don’t want to wait until then. I want to talk about it now.
You never want to talk when I want to talk. I think we should wait until we’ve both calmed down, I said.
Just tell me why you’re so absolutely upset with me.
What is your life like? I thought. What was it like there? Who were you there? Who are you now?
We can talk about it in the morning, I repeated, and stood to go upstairs.
More fireworks burst into the air outside when I reached the elevator bank. This time Ivy actually gave a little yelp and reached for something near her that wasn’t there. Blue light washed through the plate glass windows, and Ivy now relaxed her arms, leaned back in the chair, and started to laugh, high and hysterical. I stopped, my finger a pathetic centimeter from the up button.
What’s so funny? I asked.
Do you know why that keeps happening? she called out.
Why what keeps happening? I said. It’s New Years. People celebrate with fireworks.
I jammed my finger into the up button.
Not that, she said.
Ivy laughed a little more until her breathing calmed down. She twisted her watch around her wrist and furrowed her brow a bit like she used to when taking a math test, or trying to remember the succession of the English monarchy for history class.
Sometime in my last couple months of deployment, this one afternoon the medical team got a call about a roadside bomb. It was funny that they wasted the time to call it in because you could hear it—ba-BOOM—right over the line. And you knew you had to react right then,
because the importance of time cannot be understated in situations like these.
The elevator dinged in front of me. I let it open and close.
So we get there, Ivy continued. I’I have all my gear and I run right into the building with the rest of the medical team. My pack is heavy and I’m scared but I’m not thinking about how heavy everything is or how all I want to do is run in the opposite direction. Which is hard because everything is smoke. Rubble. Screaming. Panic panic panic. But I’m used to this by now, and my brain goes all reptile and starts telling me all kinds of things I have to do and I sort of just start listening to it. If a guy is on the ground bleeding, I stop the bleeding. If a guy looks unconscious, I hold his hand up in the air and see where it falls; I push open his eyelids, shine lights into his pupils. I help him come to. If someone doesn’t have a head anymore, I do the sign of the cross over him and move on to the next soldier.
I sat back down in my leather chair.
So I’m working on this one soldier’s arm when I hear something I can’t understand coming out of the dust behind me. It’s someone talking but it’s not in English, it’s in Arabic, but I haven’t realized that until I’ve turned around and looked into this guy’s face. And when I finally see him I’m so sorry I did. He doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen in a textbook. His face is burned up, his torso is all bloody…the only thing he’s got going for him extremity-wise is one good arm. But my brain is still doing its job and I still think, okay, as soon as I finish this one, I’m going to move on to him. I turn back to my soldier and keep cleaning him up. He’s gritting his teeth on a hunk of gauze I jammed in his mouth to try to get through the pain. He’s making noises—that’s normal—but I notice soon that this noise is different, this isn’t a noise that says I’m in pain, this is a noise that’s trying to get your attention, that says Look look look look look. His eyes are big and blue and bugging out at something behind me. I look back. Then I see that the other guy—the Arab guy—has got a cellphone sitting two feet away from his good hand. I can’t reach it from where I am without getting past him. And in that moment I’m about ninet-nine percent sure that we’re about to have a daisy chain situation (What’s a daisy chain situation, I wanted to ask, but didn’t) here if that guy reaches the cell phone, and all the other guys out there on the road in the vehicles are going to be dead if I don’t do something about this.
Ivy spun the watch around her wrist faster.
But what if it’s just a cellphone? I remember thinking. I remember very much wanting it to be just a cellphone. But the soldier I’m working on spits out his gauze and goes, as if he isn’t feeling any pain at all, as if all pain has been forgotten in the face of the little blinking light on that not-so-far-from-the-other-guy cellphone, Get hajji. And now I’m thinking but I’m just a medic. I’m just a medic.
Ivy uncrossed her legs and covered her head with her hands. I knew what she wanted me to say. And then what? And under any other circumstances, I would have done it. I had planned for this. Until this night I knew that when Ivy finally decided that she could talk to me about what happened to her in Iraq, I would listen, I would ask questions, and when she finished her story, I would offer advice, I would hug her, I would tell her to talk to someone on base who could help her better than I could, I would tell her that everything’s okay now and that everything’s going to be okay, and that all the decisions she made were under morally relative circumstances and because I know her I know she made the right decisions in those moments and would never do anything untrue to herself; but something inside me now—not that nice voice of my mother or that sound or my own maggoty cowardice—something else not like this, not while she’s drunk like this, this isn’t real, and I listened to it. I let her fizzle out. I let her stop. I let her fall silent.
A few minutes later, Ivy gave me a hug before she went to bed and told me I was her best friend and that I always would be. But those words felt like the last breaths of air leaking out of an old balloon. I knew Greg was waiting for her upstairs, and I knew he knew things I didn’t, that I couldn’t, and that she wouldn’t share with someone who didn’t know the first thing about them, and I knew that a real best friend would never have done what I did to her that night. Or didn’t do.
Last year, when Ivy was Stateside on leave, she and I took a long weekend together to a cabin we rented in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As Ivy drove her little Honda toward the Shenandoah Valley I pressed my face against the glass, my breath fogging the window as I stared out at the changing landscape around me. The car ascended into the hills, and when we got to an overlook I asked Ivy to pull over so I could get out and really see mountains for the first time. I ran out to the ledge, sat on it, swung my feet over it. The setting springtime sun painted my winterpale skin orange and warm. I heard gravel crunch behind me, and Ivy sat down next to me, her hands wrapped tight around her drawn-up knees. We sat in silence for a while. Soon, I started to cry over the beauty of all of it, at the way my sense of the scale of the world had suddenly shifted and expanded. I’ve just never seen mountains before, I had said, and then Ivy had laughed at me, telling me in a voice that all at once sounded decades older than my own, These aren’t even really mountains.