blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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New Old-Girl

Jeremy—the man who will become my husband two and a half years from now—stands watch on the minesweeper with the other junior officers. As usual, the three guys discuss Girl. Each one has his own: a blonde, a redhead, or a brunette. This is how they pass the long monotony, the early days of Iraqi Freedom. Nights in the Gulf are still, hot, damp as a wet washcloth pressed against the face. The sailors talk about Girl during watches as they sweat on the bridge wing together, feeling the drone and hum of the ship’s engines through their shoes. Often, over the radio, they can hear when Tomahawks are launched from larger vessels positioned farther south. The missiles knife over them toward Baghdad.

Weeks later, their Avenger-class minesweeper will travel to Umm Qasr to clear the estuaries that lead from the northern Arabian Gulf. But, at the moment, the crew twiddles away its days as though recreating a scene out of Mister Roberts, hours spent counting the hours, cracking the same titty jokes, ironing creases into the same pair of khakis over and over again. Each evening, the ship drives nowhere, traversing the rectangular boundaries of a predetermined route called the “the night steaming box.”

Intimacy is the partner of boredom. This is why everyone knows that the oldest of the three junior officers is still recovering from an affair with a woman who serves on another ship, USS Grapple. Now that the romance has ended, he calls her Old Girl instead of Red Hot Girl, Sex Girl, Girl of My Dreams. The other officers have many names for her. She is Grapple Dumpling, Momma’s Grapple Pie, God Didn’t Make Little Green Grapples. Everyone on board has heard about the sweetness of Grapple Turnover and Grapple Sauce. Poor guy. He can’t stop remembering her breasts, her lips, how hard she used to kiss him whenever they met in a port city after a few weeks apart. 

The youngest officer is still more college kid than sailor. He is head-over-heels, corny-as-Kansas-in-August for New Girl, his sweetheart from senior year. He has only just graduated, crossing his heart before he left for the Gulf to write her every day. “I love you I love you,” he whispered in the curled seashell of her ear, on the morning they said goodbye. “Maybe we should have married,” he wonders out loud. His fraternity brothers could have been groomsmen at the wedding, and her sorority sisters could have been a bouquet of taffeta-and-silk bridesmaids. In a few months, New Girl will break up with him, thanks to too few letters and too many phone calls cut short. Then, she will be Old Girl too.

Jeremy labels me New Old-Girl. Like New Girl, I too am a college sweetheart, but I am also Old Girl, that romance many years gone, our breakup now far behind as the coastlines of the United States itself. But lately, there have been emails, the first coming soon after the terrorist attacks of 2001—that Tuesday when Peter Jennings reported rumors that the State Department had been bombed and for a few hours I believed my mother dead along with all the others in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania, when I wept with family over the stuttering static of cell phones, when I pictured my ex-boyfriend soon deployed to the Gulf and maybe killed—and now, nearly two years later, I write to him from Lincoln, Nebraska. He writes back from the minesweeper, near his temporary home in Bahrain.

New Old-Girl isn’t asking for reconciliation but for that thing we call “closure,” as though old feelings can be shut away easily, like a bundle of money or a birth certificate placed in the bottom of a lockbox. “I couldn’t forgive myself if something happened to you,” I write, “if something happened and I hadn’t made my peace.” I type phrases like “forgive myself,” “if something happened,” and “made my peace,” but what I mean is “I love you I love you.” We arrange a reunion. Eight months from now. In Nebraska. Closure.


Reunion is like rereading a favorite book. Certain passages seem familiar as childhood friends; others surprise, like sudden chemistry with a stranger in a crowded club. Certain characters are more appealing than they used to be, the kind you would now be happy to take home to meet Mother. This is the secret shared by those who often reread. It’s never the same book twice.

I tried reading Proust when I was seventeen and about to start college. My father, a former professor of classical French literature, adored À la recherche du temps perdu.  I wanted to be like him and love the taste of the madeleine dipped in the tisane as well. I wanted to say, “I’m having a Proustian experience,” and know what the words meant.

That first time, I barely made it past page fifty—weepy little Marcel whining for his mother to tuck him in, phrases fluttering on the page like gauze curtains in a dusky room, long silken sentences that rubbed together until I couldn’t recall subject or verb, kept needing to return to the top of the paragraph, the top of the page, lilac and peppermint, forget-me-nots, darling Marcel, darling darling darling. My god. Couldn’t this guy just get to the point? It took me all of my freshman and sophomore years to travel through the antechambers of those three fat volumes, shoving my way through Moncrieff’s starched translations, not enjoying the task but determined to be the good daughter. I would read Proust, dammit.

Three years after I first finished In Search of Lost Time, I was a college graduate still stuck in my college town, now managing gourmet coffee shops and recovering from my First Great Love. Jeremy and I had broken up, one of those operatic set pieces that involves near-infidelity, scenes of weeping, and even a few late-night, panting stabs at reconciliation. Only a novelist of Proust’s temperament, a connoisseur of irony, could have predicted that eight years later we would marry.

When I picked up Proust the second time, it was in between shots of espresso and toasted bagels, between “tall skinny latte” and “fifty cents is your change.” I was trying to forget names like Connie and Sarah, the New Girls that Jeremy kept mentioning. They were Old Girls, really, old flames from high school, the kind of eleventh-grade crushes that never lose their affect, like a perfume that retains the memory of lilacs long after the scent has dried.

This Proust seemed different from the one I read before. Over hundreds of pages, he becomes an ardent student of jealousy and, yes, yes, I suddenly understood why Marcel suffers for Albertine. The jealous lover feels his own heart devouring itself, and then the tissue and bone and blood surrounding it, the heart an animal with teeth, a thing so awful-beautiful it must be held and studied. Marcel follows Albertine. Later, he sniffs the lace collar of her dress to know where she has been and who she has rubbed against. He examines her mouth for signs of kisses. Maybe Marcel doesn’t do these things in the novel. The chapters blur. I can’t tell the difference anymore between what I read and what I imagined reading that second time. But I behaved this way with Jeremy or wished that I had.


Like skin, the texture of memory alters with age. When Jeremy returns from the Middle East, he drives the twenty-two hours from the East Coast to the Great Plains to visit me. I take his hand, lead him to the bedroom. I tell him, “We need to get this out of our systems.” Beneath the black sweater, he wears a white cotton T-shirt, fitted to his chest, the same kind of shirt he began to wear beneath his uniform at Officer Candidate School. His hair is shorter than I’ve ever seen it, sharp against my palm. His neck smells of green shadows. His face is shaved close, his whole body regulation, the correct weight, height, ratio of waist to hip. This Jeremy seems different from the one I held before. No, he feels just the way I remember him—always both familiar and strange. Afterward, he says the same about me.

There, in bed, I am reminded of Ronsard’s sonnet for Hélène:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

When you’re a faded, crooked thing, the poet warns his darling, my words will be the only proof of your beauty. You will regret saying no instead of yes, refusing my touch when you were a blossom ready to be picked. How amazing, you will think, that Ronsard once honored me when I was beautiful. 

In the poem, Hélène is simultaneously young and old, transformed by the man’s desire, made lovelier and more crumpled than she ever was or will be. The poem destroys her, gives her wrinkles and a stoop, even as it turns her to a flower blushing on the stem. “Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.” Cut the roses of your life, the poet commands, but what he means is, “Let me cut you, let me be the blade against your flesh.” 

Tonight, I am the pen, and Jeremy is the flower transcribed onto the page. Neither of us has turned thirty yet, although we call ourselves old, the way the young often do. In the dark, I draw a finger across new creases near the corners of his eyes.  He presses his hand to the slope of my left breast, searching for my heart, its iambic beat. 


When we marry, my white silk dress pulls tight as new skin, the bodice so corseted I can barely breathe. If this were a metaphor instead of a wedding, I would say that the gown is a new skin. Jeremy wears his dinner dress whites. In uniform, he looks like an actor playing the part of a naval officer, in a film that I might watch on DVD, perhaps An Officer and a Gentleman or No Way Out or even Top Gun. And I’ve been cast as his bride, New Old-Girl squeezing a bouquet of hot-pink flowers between her hands—roses, orchids, lilies, nerines—the petals soft and furred. We stand in front of a picture window, turned half away from the camera, so that the viewer’s eye sees still-life instead of portrait: shoulder boards and miniature metals, the lustrous folds of damask, our figures in chiaroscuro.


The slogan for US Navy minesweepers is, “Wooden ships, iron men.” Once, after participating in Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Defense training, Jeremy is called to the bridge. The other officers, still gripping their gas masks, stare at a yellow haze that drifts across the face of the water toward the ship’s porous hull. Dead fish float belly up. No one speaks, but everyone remembers the same thing: a presentation about chemical warfare, which they attended weeks ago. Even then, each man had twitched or turned away in reaction to the black-and-white photographs of children blistered, burned. Now, just thinking the phrase chemical warfare makes the men’s faces itch. Their eyes sting.

Not far from the ship, the bloated bodies of dead sheep barely float; they are neutrally buoyant, neither rising to the surface nor sinking beneath the waterline. The animals look as if they are direct quotes from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, perhaps his poem “Une Charogne,” about a carcass found lying in the road—“Les jambes en l'air, comme une femme lubrique”—legs spread wide like a whore. Or, more menacingly, the sheep’s legs resemble the chemical horns of contact mines bobbing in the Gulf, their abdomens puffed with air, limbs stiff and splayed.  

Later, the men will learn that a fishing boat has been tossing its spoiled catch back into the water, leaving a sallow mist of diesel fuel in its wake. The dead sheep were pushed from one of the carriers travelling to Bahrain, its cargo hold filled to capacity, no room for livestock that might be dead by the time the ship arrives in port. In the 120° weather, it is smarter to dump a small amount of sickened product than to let the whole batch rot.

Later, the men will laugh. Someone will say, “Your Girl scares me more than nerve gas any day of the week.” Someone will joke about Grapple Betty and Grapple of My Eye. They will pass around a photograph of New Girl, stroking the image of her tanned legs, barely covered by a tiny pair of shorts and an oversized college sweatshirt. Jeremy will recite sentences from my latest email. “She signed the letter, ‘I miss you,’” he’ll tell the others. “What does that mean?” The soft, curved permutations of Girl will distract them. They will forget the boredom, the bad chow, the way their coveralls scratch in the heat. Almost, they will forget the yellow air and the sour taste of fear in the backs of their throats. There will be no explosions waiting for them in the dark currents of the Gulf. Old Girl will look beautiful again, New Girl will remain chaste and faithful and desirous, forever smiling in a snapshot. I will be both memory and possibility. I will be twenty and twenty-eight. I will be the one who kisses Jeremy before he falls asleep.

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