A recent development: Sean places a bag over his head whenever we make love. A light-blocking, black plastic bag, 10 mil thickness. I waver between offended and fascinated.
Before the bag, before the swimmer’s nose clips, it was just earplugs. Bright orange foam that he twisted into a tight spiral and jammed into his ear canals. I don’t know if they were designed to glow in the dark but I could see them as he grunted his way, louder and more nasal than normal, toward climax above me.
In the first battle Sean brought me to, he was shot within a minute. Maimed, he veered off into a patch of nettles, far away from the fight and the crowded bleachers and the spare cannons. Through my binoculars, I watched him kneel beside an underdeveloped maple that had been starved sunlight by canopies of more established flora. He feigned choking on his own blood. His soundless lips mouthed the Lord’s Prayer as moisture from the ground soaked into his gray pants at the knees.
When the combat ended, I stumbled down to where he sat with his eyes closed. His back was propped against the scrawny tree, his legs sprawled, crushing a bed of ferns.
“It’s over,” I announced.
“How much longer do you think you’ll be?” I asked. He coughed and bubbled drool at his lips. I backed away quietly.
In the car, I waited, feet propped on the dash. Soldiers in unbuttoned lapels carried lawn chairs and coolers, accompanied by wives and children dressed in modern clothing. Muffled conversations drifted past the car windows. Those who had followed the battle from the stands commented and liked. It didn’t seem to matter what side they were on, both Blues and Grays appeared equally satisfied. Everyone was proud, even those who came to lose.
The children toddling by outside the car reminded me of one of my first dates with Sean, only a few weeks prior. We were sitting at a table outside a frozen yogurt shop when a woman passed by with a screaming four-year old in tow. The scream was animal, existential, the sound of a soul in a throttled, demonic grip. Sean activated his phone and began recording. Red-faced, the child collapsed onto the sidewalk kicking like an insect at any attempt to return him to his feet. His bedraggled caretaker muttered an exhausted curse and hiked her shopping bags up onto her shoulders. After a meditative pause, in a practiced, moderately violent motion, she yanked the child into an approximation of standing and dragged him away.
“I had that same kind of relationship with my mom,” Sean said with a wistful smile.
“You recorded that?” I said.
“My followers will like it,” he replied, shrugging as if preordained to fill the world with minor devastations.
At that first battle, Sean took over half an hour before returning to the car. “How was your death?” I asked. “Lonely,” he replied, getting into the driver’s seat. We sat in silence watching the remaining organizers chase trash tumbling into the nearby woods. I have chronically suffered from brief attachments to underdogs, the ones who don’t seem to realize they’re not going to make it. With loneliness standing in for feelings of love, I scooched over the vinyl bench seat of his Dodge Dart, plucked a leaf from his hair, closed my eyes, and kissed him for the first time.
After he finishes, he removes the bag and lays his head on my chest, his plugged ear to my sternum. His warm, moist breath tickles my left nipple. Sean says, “I’m nervous about tomorrow.” My throat clenches up. In the dozen or so battles that I have witnessed, he has never survived.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I say, running my fingers through his hair. Warm tears drip onto my chest. He shudders a few times, exhales deeply, falls asleep. I lie there on my back under his heavy body, noting, even with the bag off, how rarely we look each other in the eyes.
On the ride over, I try to think of encouraging things to say. I want to tell him to flank the edges, hide back in the rear ranks. Shelter behind a cannon or a tree. Anything to keep him away from charging straight into the bayonets of his enemies. Advice a mother might offer a son heading into a real battle, if it didn’t reek of so much cowardice.
While the Confederacy are still snapping up their double-breasted coats, the Union army bursts over the hill. Smoke belches from distant guns and cannons followed by delayed cracks and booms. Hollering all around. Whoops, here and there. A man on horseback, with a bushy beard, who I think might be Grant, extends a sword, piercing the air over the head of his horse. Soldiers squint up into the sky, annoyed by the anachronism of a helicopter passing overhead. I search out Sean and find him down on all fours, already crawling. He’s holding his side, above his right hip, near his appendix. Another soldier, in a hurried charge, trips over him, knocks one of Sean’s boots loose, making his ankle appear twisted and broken.
Moved by a vague emotion—inevitable loss or perhaps hope—I disregard protocol. I hop to my feet and skip down the aluminum bleachers, my flip-flops tanging against the hollow treads. On the field, I encounter dirty looks from everyone involved. Sean has collapsed onto his side, an outstretched arm acting as pillow. I run to him, sliding to a stop, staining my knees on the grass. I roll him over onto his back. His eyes are open, blank and wide, aimed into the sky. His earplugs peek out from his ears.
“I’ve been shot,” he shouts.
“Shhh…” I say, lifting his head into my lap. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Am I going to be okay?” he asks loudly. I lift his coat near where I guess his wound to be, pull down on his high-waisted pants and press my fingers to his uninjured skin.
“I thought I was going to make it,” he says softly.
“You could have. I mean, if you really wanted—”
“Don’t forget about me,” he says, lifting his hand to touch my cheek.
My eyebrows squeeze into a worried point. The end must be near. I place my hand on his forehead and dab his sweaty hair. Slowly, I slide my palm over his gaping eyes to close them.
“I’m not dead yet,” he gasps.
“Sorry,” I say and go back to petting him. Down the hill, the other men continue their warring while we wait patiently on the outskirts of their tussle.
Sometime later, after Sean’s been gone awhile, I pull his bag out of a box of possessions he left behind. Wearing his nose clips and earplugs, I place the bag over my head. For a long time, I experience nothing but my own breathing. Gradually, a mild tingle pulses in my thighs. Strange men materialize, their limbs swollen with gangrene. Fallen soldiers in blood-matted clothing lie in tall grass. De-socketed eyeballs and scraps of skull spill out toward the horizon. With each breath, more bodies, pushing closer, filling the world.
Some of the men look familiar, old underdogs I can’t quite place because of missing noses and unhinged jaws. They follow me with their eyes, searching for hope. I follow them back and we stare in circles. Crowded so close, we melt into a singular entity of cannon fodder. A scream from deep within us rattles my blinded psyche. I reach my fingers to the opening of the bag, trusting that at any moment, I am free to remove it and bring myself back to life.
Jason Kniep is a writer and housing rehabilitator living in Lawrence, KS with his dog Bowie.