After two months of dating—we’ll call him Aiden—we decided to take a weekend road trip.
Still in his work clothes, a lilac button-down shirt and black slacks, Aiden picked me up in his Volkswagen Golf on a Friday night. He pulled out a map and folded it down to the size of an index card, showing only the Northeast U.S. He slipped a pen in my hand. “Close your eyes and circle.” After I did, I heard, “I don’t think we wanna end up there.” I’d placed a circle in the Atlantic Ocean. Aiden folded the ocean away. I circled again. He laughed and showed me I’d picked home: New York City. I tried again and he shifted the car into drive. “Syracuse it is.”
I chose the turn onto 179th Street toward the George Washington Bridge to blurt out that I had my period. Aiden squeezed my hand and smiled, giving me his mock “it’s the end of the world” expression. “I’m sure we’ll still have fun.” Yet I wondered if he didn’t feel the slightest twinge of disappointment. I imagined us tangled in sheets, having lots of sex, and me—with the lights dim enough and plenty of eyeliner—looking like Madonna in her Erotica phase.
And listen, Aiden is thirty-seven. I’m thirty-five. I was sure he knew period sex choreography. I certainly did. Towel on the bed. Removal of underwear and feminine hygiene product only seconds before penetration. Sprint to the bathroom. Full battle rattle, I like to call it. All those precautions we take to minimize the mess. It’s a term I gleaned from one of my closest friends, a veteran. It’s military slang for soldiers to put on the maximum amount of protective gear in anticipation of entering heavy combat zones.
And that’s exactly where I was heading. Even if I only felt it instinctively in the sensation of bracing myself, as if I were in a car making a sharp turn. It made me repeat to myself and friends, “I haven’t been away with a man since I was married.” Easygoing and carefree was my modus operandi in dating for the past year. There was no difference between one date and ten with the same person. This was date what? Nine or ten with Aiden? I was perfectly aware that this trip was just to see what it felt like to spend more consecutive evenings together. It could turn out to be wonderful enough to keep spending more of them or show us this was enough. It was no more significant than that. At least, that is what I told myself.
Improved outer tactical vest.
About two hours into the drive, Aiden and I stopped at a Marriot in Scranton, Pennsylvania for the night.
Was the front desk clerk assuming we were just having sex? No, we had suitcases like decent people. Did he think we were covering up our true intentions with our too-obvious suitcases? Checking into a hotel in another state seemed like going to disproportionately great lengths, but people do it. Was he wondering what Aiden was doing with me? Me in a red beanie, ripped jeans and shitkicker boots like a street urchin. Was he at a loss for how this blue-eyed Irish guy from Bricktown, NJ ever crossed paths with this Dominican mulatta from Washington Heights with the side of her head shaved and glasses big enough to evoke nostalgia for Revenge of the Nerds movies?
Of course, it was me asking those questions. The hotel employee, a young white guy who was in the middle of a conversation with a coworker when we arrived, was probably thinking what every employee does—is it time to go home yet. Knowing that didn’t stop me from fidgeting by the reservation desk. I considered standing closer to Aiden to show I was comfortable with him. I also considered standing further away to show I was comfortable with myself.
In the year before Aiden, there were two dates with that witty bartender, two dates with that adorable teacher. Three months seeing a chef, three months seeing a British guy, two dates with that MMA fighter. A host of others. All equal in their inability to elicit much more than a shrug at their absence. And these were men I actually liked and had a great time with.
Before them, there was John. After dating for a few months, one day, I woke to a world where John bludgeoned his mother to death. A few days later, he was dead in the bathtub of a motel in the Bronx from self-inflicted knife wounds to his wrists. Just a couple of weeks before that, he had sat on my couch and told me he loved me. I had reciprocated a week later.
I dated fearlessly, perhaps stupidly, before John. Heart always victorious over head. After him, a sort of coldness crept in, birthed by the knowledge that anyone can sever themselves from my life at any moment. Everyone is capable of severing themselves from their humanity. The only way not to be destroyed by that understanding, the only way to survive, was to maintain a partition between myself and everyone else. This shield gave me the illusion of safety, of traveling light through life since nothing could pierce me. Not disappointment, not pain, not barbarity.
Deep down, the numbness from this new way of being alarmed me, but not enough to do more than tamp it down.
Sometimes, I felt unscathed or healed—good as new!—from John. Other days, he was an arterial blockage, unavoidable and forcing everything to funnel through the bottleneck his death created.
Full battle rattle consists of almost fifty pounds of equipment. A GPS locator pinpoints a soldier’s position in relation to their unit or objective. Body armor offers protection while still allowing mobility. A helmet specifically protects the head. A hydration system stores water in addition to a canteen. An inter-team radio is what a soldier uses to communicate with their team and command. That night in Scranton, I went to bed fully dressed in black tights and a black tee-shirt. I lamented my inability to ask Aiden for what I wanted—a guarantee it was safe to take it all off.
Advanced combat helmet.
I tried not to be a creep and watch Aiden sleep. I make fun of people who do that. But I woke up too early, too hot, facing his back. It was only natural I look up then, at the grays that began at the nape of his neck and flowed upstream through his chestnut hair. I wondered if all his hair would turn white over time. If it would be like glancing at an aerial map in summer then again in winter, and if I wanted to be around to see that. In a broader sense, what did I want to be around to witness in another person?
When you’re first dating someone every meal, outing, and anecdote promises an adventure. That sense of excitement is unsustainable. At some point, you learn they take their coffee black, that they’re gonna go with the steak, and you’ve heard most of their stories. The very thing you’re running towards—growing familiar with a person—is the same thing that erodes the adventure into the mundane. It’s an impossible equation to maintain balanced. You must pick a side to favor: acquiesce to the routine to gain intimacy or sacrifice depth for novelty. As a child of thrice-divorced parents and a divorcee myself, I equate long-term relationships with inevitable dissatisfaction.
Maybe it was Aiden’s transparency that made me reconsider familiarity. We planned to have our first date when he returned from a weekend in Boston with his godson. Instead, he said he didn’t want to wait and asked to see me before he left. There is a risk in allowing someone to see where your enthusiasm lies; you’re also revealing where you’re most vulnerable. He must’ve trusted that I wouldn’t see him as weak or maybe he didn’t give a damn what I would think and needed to do what felt right. Whatever, the case, he approached me unarmed with bullshit.
By the time we finished watching Derek Jeter’s last home game at a bar in my neighborhood, we were sitting with every conceivable part of our bodies, from our shoulders to our feet, touching.
I expected not to hear from him after he spent the night. That caused me the same amount of discomfort as a headache, which is to say, I wished it wasn’t the case but I knew I’d be fine. I received a text that day saying, “Your hug at the door before I left was all I thought about today.”
He just kept reaching out and I reached back, day after day, week after week, until things took on a sense of regularity, despite my waiting to be injured. Aiden seemed to do things in a genuine way that was intentional without seeming calculating. Heart and head worked together in him, his battle rattle lighter than mine.
I drifted back to sleep, an arm threaded under his. A phrase popped into my head to answer my question of what I wanted to witness. His goodness. I wanted to experience goodness in another person again.
Saturday morning, Aiden and I visited the Erie Canal museum. We walked through a sixty-five foot long reconstructed canal boat. Many of the canal boats that passed through the Erie Canal carried passengers as well as cargo. Approaching the bow of the boat was an area recreated to show where passengers slept. Etched on glass was a letter from a real passenger. A wife, whose husband died while they were at sea, wrote it to her brother. Her children had also fallen ill. She wrote that things in Ireland had been bad with the famine, but this was much worse. She hoped to find work and housing with a family in Rochester, hoped someone she knew from home was still there to orient her.
I watched Aiden, a few feet in front of me, stepping out onto the deck and repeated the last line of that woman’s letter. “I have never been more afraid in my life.” I was at the threshold of the unknown, like that wife, although not nearly in as physically dire circumstances. And yet, she held onto the hope that the death and sickness leading up to the end of her journey would be worth it. Despite the past taunting her with proof that worse could stack itself on top of bad. That life owed her nothing.
I carried a reserve of sorts, like a soldier’s hydration system, that I was afraid was unreachable to anyone else. Unlike that woman on the cargo boat, mine wasn’t filled with hope—it carried self-preservation. What if all I had to offer was the canteen, the part of me that was communal and generous? The part of me that was easy to share, but also less precious. The hydration system, with its feeder hose, is intended primarily for its owner. Direct and intimate. What you turn to when the canteen is dry.
New clotting agents and blood products contribute to greater survival rates of wounded American soldiers.
Of course, we had sex.
Saturday after the Erie Canal museum, Aiden and I tried the local Saranac and Genesee beers at a bar. We circled the Jerry’s Rescue monument. It commemorated the arrest of an escaped slave in 1851 and his subsequent rescue by a group of citizens. We exchanged the windy streets for a sports bar where Aiden watched football and I caught some wrestling on TV. We took a nap back at the hotel before dinner at the original Dinosaur BBQ. We watched the college age crowd at a bar and agreed it was wonderful to no longer be that young. I was riding the high of being in the middle of one of the best weekends I’d had with anyone in years.
Back in our room, I said something like, “I feel restless,” and immediately our hands and mouths were everywhere.
“Do you want to put a towel underneath?” Aiden asked.
“Fuck the towel.”
Afterwards, there it was. The result of my negligence of full battle rattle. A palm-sized crimson stain. Proof that I could lead myself astray. Or that I can be completely certain of my position one moment only to find I needed to be somewhere else the next. That splotch confirmed what had only been a suspicion before. Something about carrying all that emotional armor was more cumbersome than the mess I was trying to avoid. But it was also a reassurance; it wasn’t a defeat to change my mind about what I wanted. There was bravery in holding out hope for the things I’d been denied. Most of all, it was evidence that we’re part of a cycle of endings and beginnings. And sometimes there’s blood in that.
“I wish they would just leave extra sheets in the room.”
From the bathroom, Aiden asked, “Do you want me to call downstairs and have them change the sheets?”
The thought of some poor woman changing the sheets I just had sex in filled me with as much terror as if it were my own mother coming.
“Oh God no. Listen, I’m putting a towel over it and dealing with it in the morning.”
“Works for me.”
In the morning, Aiden wrote a note to the cleaning woman and left her a large tip.
About two hours into the drive back to New York City on Sunday, a light on the dashboard began blinking.
“Should we try and make it to the city or find a service station? We’re out in the middle of nowhere.” Aiden glanced at the light. The air in the car hummed with concern.
I don’t know if I replied in my head or out loud, but my answer was the same—I don’t know. Had it been my car, and I’ve driven some that made me no stranger to getting stranded, I would’ve floored it until the car gave out. Not the most responsible suggestion. What if I told him to do that and something worse happened? Who was I to approve or disapprove of what he should do?
“Could you Google what that light might mean?”
Of course my shitty phone wasn’t getting service. Aiden picked up his iPhone and started typing. I interpreted it as a confirmation of my uselessness. I started to object, to say, you asked me to do something, let me do it, when the check engine light joined the conversation. The car began decelerating on the inclined road we were on. “Okay, I’m stopping to see if they know where I can go.” Aiden pulled into a gas station and returned a few minutes later. “Good news, there’s a shop open.”
In the five-minute ride to Liberty, New York, a small blip became an avalanche of white noise. If only I had chosen somewhere closer than Syracuse. Look at the return for all his efforts to please me. He was regretting this trip. Was this going to turn into an argument? I’d never seen him under pressure, and that’s when you really see someone, isn’t it? And now that he’d seen my response—or lack of one—to his duress, he’d know I was indecisive and useless.
Except I wasn’t. I was a capable adult. I made decisions and took actions every day. By myself. Maybe that was it. I did things alone, conferring with no one. The newness of a collaborative dynamic made me clumsy, unsure, and submissive to the point of silence. I couldn’t shake the feeling I had failed a test, one I was unprepared to take.
Later that night, finally at my place after calling in a favor to a colleague for a ride, Aiden asked, “Was I a monster? You need to tell me so I can fix it. Maybe I was a little short, but I think under the circumstances, I handled things pretty well. I was thinking of our safety. When you’re by yourself it’s one thing, but with someone else, you’re responsible for them. I didn’t know if we’d have to spend the night, if you had things to do tomorrow. It was my job to get you home.”
“I just wasn’t sure how to help or if you really wanted my input.”
“I don’t need a yes-man,” he said gently, leaning against the door frame of my bedroom.
I nodded my assent. In doing so, I also accepted that dating someone meant functioning as a unit. It required acting in ways that acknowledged I was not alone. I suspect, deep down, I was not ready to give up the safety of my loneness.
I wasn’t the only one succumbing to the static in their head. Aiden had a clear definition of manhood, one that revolved around taking care of himself and others. When he was nineteen, he packed all his belongings in his car and left home. Aiden worked three jobs and put himself through school. He puffed up with pride when he told me this. Aiden’s ability to move about freely in the world defined his manhood. As level-headed as I thought he was on our trip, a broken-down car, an unfamiliar town, and the inability to complete the trip as planned gnawed at his sense of self.
Full battle rattle contributes to injuries that eventually make soldiers non-deployable.
Aiden and I dated for about two more months after Syracuse. I left for a writing residency in Oregon for a month. He traveled to Virginia and Utica for long work days. I wanted our connection to withstand distance. I wanted a connection that would withstand, period. When I returned home, I deliberated about a week before finally telling him our dating was unsustainable.
Blood, evidence of trauma, wasn’t enough to ward people away from the mess of me forever. Thankfully. When I believed I was protecting myself from others, I was only widening a distance within myself. The combat zone I braced for—closeness with another person—was self-contained. The blunt force of John’s death, the battle rattle I designed to survive it, and the realization it had become obsolete.
That weekend in Syracuse was not about Aiden, or us. It was about me. Its significance was not in determining whether we wanted to continue dating, but rather if I wanted to continue under the weight of my coping mechanisms.
My head doesn’t need to conquer my heart. They can co-exist. And dating Aiden was one instance where I needed my heart to bring my head to its senses. It is because I am sure to experience loss and inhumanity that I must feel everything else. To beat back the coldness those things leave in their wake.
Every war develops more sophisticated ways to kill, but that force doesn’t go unchecked. In the face of being unable to stop bloodshed outright, innovation rises to meet it with new ways to save lives. New ways to survive.
Glendaliz Camacho was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing has appeared in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press), Kweli Journal, and Saraba Magazine, among others. She is currently working on a short story collection, book of essays, and fantasy novel.