“Let me just grab my stuff. You want a beer?”
I pick Hunter up from an apartment in Sun Valley, an hour in a car from school up a highway he calls “the devil’s anus.” He’s living with a teamster who’s never home, in an apartment I’d call the devil’s taint. Squat and dark, the stench from the bathroom reaches down my throat. Every surface looks sticky. There is only one room. Hunter’s things are folded neatly on the cracked brown couch, his military uniform wrapped in plastic, and cockroaches scuttle in the bathroom. “Take everything,” I tell him. “Come crash with me.”
Our apartment in Glendale is a fifteen-minute drive to school with traffic. My girlfriend, who isn’t exactly my girlfriend (who sometimes isn’t even my friend), will move into the master when her lease is up in six weeks, she keeps saying. Until then, it’s me and Hunter eating pizza and playing video games and watching hockey. We have decided to be brothers, arguing politics in his red F-150, rock-paper-scissors over who takes out the Papa John’s boxes, and we breathe in tandem exhaling bong rips.
His father appears one night with a bedroom set and framed pictures of their Weiner dog. “Adolph,” says Hunter’s dad, without laughing, the shadow of an SS tattoo blurred out on his bicep. “Have you met Daisy yet?” his dad sneers, spewing cigarette smoke into our living room. I shake my head. “She can’t cook or clean, but she can load a rifle,” he scoffs. Hunter is deflated, muted by the sharpness of his father’s contempt—but he still smiles when we catch eyes.
And then one night there she is, Daisy. Blonde and broad, Hunter’s face beneath the high wig pleading, a question hovering between us, just beneath the caked-on foundation. “Who is this beautiful young lady?” I ask. Daisy titters and extends a gloved hand slowly. Instead of shaking, I take her palm and flip it over, grazing the top of her hand with my lips. “Oh my!” Daisy exclaims, delighted. It is easy to pretend for her, to hope in pretending that she finds breath.
The week is split between them. Nights spent screaming at the Penguins are followed by evenings cooking elaborate dinners and jiving to sixties records. Her dresses are tucked in between his military uniforms, kitten heels hidden beneath rows of black army issue boots and worn out Nikes. For every story Hunter has, Daisy has another. Hunter unpacks groceries while he tells me about deployment: that Kuwait smells like asshole, that it’s so hot the sweat sticks and food melts in hot cars. Daisy remembers the local men: the way the muscles in their backs were tightly knotted at the top, the nights on base when sometimes soldiers would touch hands in the dark to keep out the fear.
Hunter remembers the recoil of his rifle, the tendons in his arms and shoulders now forever calibrated to his M4. Hunter tells me what it’s like to kill people for real as we smash our way through a video game level, to watch bodies collapse in a spray of bullets, the stench of human shit that lingers as flesh slowly rots. Daisy remembers their faces, the women, the children, the dead. He flexes his thigh where you can still feel the shrapnel just beneath the skin, tells me girls dig it. She pens poems about trauma nightmares, wondering about the shape of soldiers’ souls.
We met at a mixer for actors and directors. A vocational binary already in the room: They stand and perform skits designed to show “range,” and we sit and make notes. Two halves of the same film school, acting students and directing students, the used and their users.
Hunter is the guy in the Penguins hat, and I am the fat lesbian with the shaved head. There is something in his movement, not graceful or even practiced, but joyous. He doesn’t shine but buzzes, vibrates. His being infuses a low hum into the room, breaking up the static of skit after skit. I cast him in my next weekend project. I like the way he likes the way I look at him.
Hunter dumps a quart of milk on his face. “Again, but play it more to camera,” I tell him. Hunter throws a baseball. Again. Hunter breaks a mirror. Again. Hunter jumps into a swimming pool. Over and over: quart of milk, baseball, swimming pool.
We run out of milk and use water with food dye. Our black and white Arriflex cameras will pick up anything viscous as milk, it doesn’t matter that the food dye is cheap and makes Hunter itch. Palms chapped, shirt stained, and eyes watering, Hunter’s delight still transports through set. “Again!” he says as we wrap the last shot.
I like him quickly. He’s easy to work with, physical, unafraid. I am 19 and he is 24, but our lives feel the same height when we measure them in stories.
He doesn’t flirt with my girlfriend (who isn’t my girlfriend), and he’ll shave anything you ask him too—a rarity in male actors. He talks more than I can listen and is always happy to tell the story one more time. I am a fat girl in Los Angeles, I am used to people looking through me. I am used to people staring or dropping their gaze, accustomed to comments and small cruelties. Most days I feel a constant tightness creeping, like I am living life gasping for air. Somehow Hunter loosens me, inch by inch I begin to live in gulps.
“How can you cope with this?” my not-girlfriend spends a week with me and Daisy and Hunter, her lease finally up but her belongings still in storage. I shrug that I don’t mind because I don’t. I watch my not-girlfriend remind me that being a good girlfriend to her means keeping her safe from “creeps” and “crossdressers” and “suicidal psychos.”
“It has a gun,” says my girlfriend again and again and again.
I want to tell my girlfriend (not-girlfriend) to shut the fuck up.
I want to tell her that Hunter is Hunter and Daisy is Daisy and both should be allowed to breathe. I want to tell her I know the instinct to split yourself in half, too, that I know the violence required to hold your true self in shadow, that I have another name I only dare whisper. The words refuse me, the scar of “it” burning into my ribcage, so I shrug a second time.
“I dunno, doesn’t seem that weird to me.”
“You’re not like that are you?” asks my girlfriend whom right now I don’t even want to look at, much less be with. I shake my head even though the gesture is splintering me, even though it is a lie. She kisses me, and my lungs feel pinched beneath her mouth.
She wants him gone. Hunter has nightmares, Hunter has rages, Hunter has a gun. The joy in him is waxing and waning, some days still a bright haze but mostly now he is sunless, somber, gray. Daisy’s visits are less frequent, and I miss her giggle and poorly applied mascara.
And then, one night, Hunter is drunk and stony faced, and when the Penguins lose, he punches a wall in his bedroom so hard for so long that his knuckles bleed and his fingers mangle. He is in boxes the next day, and we watch him pack from the couch. “He could have killed us,” says my girlfriend whom I am dating even though we are living in separate bedrooms and she’s texting some guy from the camera department at school all the time.
Hunter isn’t angry with us. He understands.
Hunter packs his red F-150 with the Texas plates. A corner of one of Daisy’s blouses pokes out beneath a layer of Hunter’s jerseys, a single high heel amidst mucky converse and dusty brogues.
I understand my girlfriend’s fear, but I am not afraid. I know that we’re seeing only the runoff, the excess. I know what it is to swallow all of that violence, to absorb all of that hatred, to let a deep reservoir of despair fester and acidify so even the sweetest moments still sting a little. The only person Hunter will kill is himself, I tell my not-girlfriend. Himself, and Daisy.
“Not my problem,” says my girlfriend before going back to her phone.
“I knew she was bad news.” Daisy spoons her banana split at our favorite diner on Sunset. My not-girlfriend is now my not-anything, has left me finally and properly for the camera guy and then left him for someone else. I have come to apologize ,but Daisy waves my words away with a flick of a manicured wrist.
She is smaller. Hunter has taken up running again. Hunter has reenlisted. Hunter smells sulfur in the air all the time now, he is at war even at home. “He has to do it,” says Daisy. She opens her phone to show me pictures of Hunter’s promotion ceremony to Private First Class, Hunter’s new car, Hunter’s new girlfriend. Hunter will do another tour.
“What about you?” I ask her.
“I’m almost out the door, darling, I’m practically in boxes I swear,” Daisy sips black coffee and the mug comes away stained with lipstick.
I imagine her pink chemise blouses folded neatly in cardboard. Hunter’s uniforms no longer wrapped in plastic, Daisy’s black satin kitten heels waiting neatly for trash pick-up.
She’s leaving so Hunter can stay. His life is the one that matters. When Hunter goes to war, Daisy must disappear. He will give away her belongings because he can’t leave them with friends and can’t afford a storage locker. Daisy will live again if and when Hunter comes home.
For now, she’s performing at drag nights, getting work as a day player on set. It’s a matter of weeks before Hunter will return to active duty. She’s making the most of what she has left. “This is all for camera now honey, it’s why my face is so much sharper,” says Daisy and I nod along. Her makeup has improved.
We sit for a while in close silence, marinating in the dregs of a fading intimacy. I want to tell her I love her, that I don’t want her to go, say something acknowledging them both, accepting them as one. I want this to be the moment in the movie that’s bittersweet, poignant, hopeful. I want to be sorry and angry and laugh all at once. I want to hold all her grief in my hands so it can feel small.
Instead, I order chicken fingers and another coffee for Daisy. “What about you?” she asks. Film school is gearing into thesis and I’m prepping for my project. I give her the rundown, show her the sides. She smiles and drops her voice a little and I remember the milk and the baseball and the low hum of Hunter in front of the camera.
Or was he Daisy then, was it her electricity moving through him for the lens? Did our pretending—me and the art department and the sound guys and grips—did all of our pretending give them both a brief window to exist as a whole?
Daisy has to buy makeup for a show tonight. I go with her to the show because I can’t muster up goodbye. She dances in the aisles of a giant cosmetics outlet in the valley, the kind of place you need a membership. She fills her basket with lashes and lipsticks, the cheap stuff that will still hold under hot lights. Nothing she can’t throw away.
I’m not much for makeup, don’t know even the basics, but Daisy will show me. She grabs my hands to mark with thick foundation until she finds a match. She grabs an eyeliner pencil and traces the outline of my eyes. I balk and blink, but her hands are firm. She shows me my new half-face in the test mirrors. I look like a man in drag.
“What do you think?” she asks me.
“It’s not really me, is it?” I say, smiling.
She sighs gently. “No. It isn’t.” I pay for her new makeup. I wipe myself off. We walk back to our cars in silence. “Have you ever thought about it?” Daisy asks me in front of Hunter’s newer, yellower F-150.
“About what?” I ask.
“Changing,” she says, unlocking Hunter’s car with the clicker.
“I don’t know,” I say, and it isn’t a lie or quite the truth. I can feel her eyes searching my face for more, but I don’t give it. All I can do for now is pretend.
Daisy gets into Hunter’s car and starts up the engine. I turn to walk to my own car, but she honks so I turn back. She pulls up and I lean down to the drivers’ side window.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be handsome when you do it.”
She blows me a kiss and I watch until the sound of the F-150 has faded into the unrelenting buzz of Los Angeles traffic.
Rumpus original art by Honey Gilmore