After six dates, all I knew about her father was that he served in the US Navy. Born in Manila, she was raised on military bases in Annapolis, Naples, and Bahrain. Which probably explained her ability to pick up languages, her balled-up self-confidence, and her uncanny knowledge of Baltimore-area sports trivia. I liked her. She said if her father found out she was dating a slacker liberal humanitarian aid worker, he would murder us both. I liked that, too.
I took her across the border to some houses we were building in Maclovio Rojas, about halfway between Tijuana and Tecate. She handed out bottled water and played freeze tag with the children. I had to talk to the foreman about widening the temporary sewage trench.
At lunch a dust storm kicked up, so we ate our roasted chicken and beans inside one of the unfinished houses, with a corrugated metal roof that snapped and hissed when the sand whipped over it.
Returning to my car, she unwrapped a lime-flavored popsicle. “God. It’s even worse than I pictured. My father has a name for places like this. The tumors of the world. If he saw how these people are living, he would nuke the whole valley.”
I laughed. “I bet he wouldn’t like my apartment, either. Remind me what he does, exactly? Is he the guy who carries the launch briefcase for the president?”
She smiled with green teeth. “He runs a nuclear submarine.”
I laughed again. The car bucked along an unpaved road and burst onto the narrow Tijuana streets, aiming for the border station. “Not really, right?”
“Really,” she said.
I turned to study her face. “What’s his name?”
“Norman. Norman Henry Feldspar.”
“What’s his rank?”
“United States Navy Commander.”
“What kind of submarine?”
“Seawolf-class attack sub.”
“Where’s he posted?”
“Last time I called, he was off the coast of South Korea.”
I said: “Huh.”
Eventually we became mired in traffic. A man outside my window was trying to sell me a brightly colored blanket.
“He wouldn’t really nuke people, though,” I said.
She licked her popsicle stick clean. “Only if he could get away with it!”
I dreamed of detonations, mushroom clouds, Zeus in a navy uniform, radioactive ash falling beautifully to the ground. I knew it was silly.
The Orioles were playing the Angels on TV. She came out of the shower and insisted that we watch the game, and that I comb the long, wet tangles out of her hair. Even with the Orioles down 8 runs in the seventh, she clapped and called out each batter’s name.
“When you say he runs a nuclear submarine, you mean the submarine is nuclear-powered, right? He doesn’t have nuclear weapons on board.”
“Depends on the mission,” she said. “He’s not allowed to tell me that stuff. But they do have Tomahawks, Harpoons, Mk-48s, and those little guys that you can control with, like, a joystick. They can pretty much hit any target, day or night. In Somalia I think they were lighting up individual houses and killing warlords from like 80 miles away.”
I pulled my hand away from her scalp. Flecks of skin and slimy clumps of hair clung to my fingers. I went to the other room to lie down.
For three weeks I didn’t call her, hoping she’d get the hint. Then I invited her to a Mexican restaurant in La Jolla—a place with a good, solid roof that satellites couldn’t see through, and no CCTV cameras. I did a dry run to check it out beforehand. It’s unbelievable what goes on in the military-industrial complex these days. Working at a charitable non-profit, I’d heard stories about the military and their lobbyists getting away with perjury, extortion, sabotage. My cell phone was GPS-enabled, so I left it at home. Of course, she could always be carrying a device in her purse that allowed her father to home in on us. Say, with a joystick-operated missile.
From the parking meter to the restaurant, I watched the skies. A few times I nearly ducked.
Partway through the break-up speech, she asked me to stop. She had seen this coming. In fact, the last time she spoke to her father, she told him she was afraid we wouldn’t be together much longer.
“Where is he now, by chance?”
“On his way here. They’re taking shore leave in Coronado.”
Her cell phone hopped and buzzed on the table. Somewhere a plate slipped and shattered. I heard this low-frequency electric whine that seemed to be emanating from the base of my jaw.
I got up to retrieve something from the car, and I never went back.
On the evening news a reporter described how a bakery across the street from the Mexican place had “exploded” shortly after I left, when a “gas leak” went undetected, “filling the building with flammable vapors that, once ignited, lifted the roof and blew the windows into the street.” Three people were killed.
Luckily it missed me.