When my phone jingles on my bedside table, I know it will be David. My former student has formed a habit of late-night calls and texts. I mostly find it endearing.
I squint at the bright screen. I think I found America, it says.
Who knew? I write back. So Fort Lewis is the real America? Is it the food, or all the camo?
The next message is just one word. Perez.
Though it is after midnight, I hit the call button. “Tell me,” I say. I speak quietly, so as not to wake Chloe in the next room.
“I was in a strip club with a bunch of guys from my platoon,” he begins. “I swear, Laurel, it was her.”
“Dancing?” I ask, though I already know the answer. “Did you talk to her?”
“God, no,” David says. “What was I supposed to do, call her over for a lap dance and say, ‘Hey, America. Long time no see.’”
I ask if he is sure.
“She was my first love,” David says. “Of course I’m sure it was her. Plus—I mean, I could see all of her.”
He is trying to be cavalier, but I can hear tears in his voice. I sit up in bed, pulling the blankets close around my chest. He is quiet for a moment.
“We’d already been there for almost an hour. And then she came on stage. It was her. I could see the scar on her knee. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”
Sunday morning, I drop Chloe off for a play-date and take the opportunity to grocery shop without my two-year-old in tow. There is a display of nectarines, and I check if they are ripe. Bruises mar their thin skins.
America Perez still comes unbidden to my mind now and again. In those days—before I had a child of my own—I gave more of myself to my job. Getting to know my kids. Caring about their troubles and triumphs. With high school, there were always more troubles. I picture America now—and the image shifts. If I’ve had a good day, if I’m feeling optimistic about humanity, I imagine her smiling—maybe working in a coffee shop, a healthy fullness to her face. Then there are the days I see her crouched in a protected nook of some downtown building, a ratty blanket around her shoulders.
The truth is that I haven’t heard from America in three years. As far as I know, no one has.
I picture America, not as she might be now, but as she was then. At fifteen, America had just hit five feet tall. She was the kind of skinny that startled, the kind of skinny that urged a quick note to the school nurse.
Beyond that fleeting concern, America never called attention to herself. America’s impact had been in her leaving. I still remember the exact wording of the assignment I’d graded that Saturday—“I relate to the book because like Melissa, I have been raped. In the book, though, it only happened once. In the book, it wasn’t a family member.”
She hadn’t shown up to school on Monday.
At the car rental desk on the lower level of Seattle Tacoma International, I ask for directions to the Déjà Vu strip club in Tacoma. The man looks me up and down, trying to decide if I am a customer, or looking for a job.
The club is still open when I pull into the lot, but I can’t bring myself to go in alone. Besides, I will see David in the morning. A large man in a tee shirt that rides too high and tight across his belly exits the club. He ducks away from my headlights.
At a Denny’s near base, I see David Brady for the first time in nearly a year. Basic training had bulked up his muscles, made him look like a man, and the previous nine months have only added to it. At first glance, he is not at all the boy I once taught. But then he smiles, and is my sweet kid again. We do not talk about America over breakfast.
When he goes back to Fort Lewis, I am alone for the day. I should be at the board right now, posting the homework. I should be planning what I will cook for Chloe tonight. I have never been away from my daughter. When I call the friends I left her with, they say she is down for a nap.
To distract myself, I flip through the stations on my hotel-room television.
“Is this real?” I ask David.
“This,” I say, motioning to the darkened room, and to him, sitting across the small table from me.
He laughs. “Yup. Ever been to a strip club, Ms. Penney?”
“Good God,” I groan. “Now? Now you’re going to start calling me Ms. Penney again?”
He is still laughing when a waitress comes to take our drink order. She begins with David. I raise my eyebrows at him when he orders a PBR. I think about ordering soda, but go for gin and tonic instead.
“They never check our IDs near base,” he tells me when the waitress leaves.
The dancer is a tall blond, and to avoid watching her, I scan the room. It smells like sweat and sadness, and is filled with men. What catches my eye are the men alone. One, across the club from us, is paying for dance after dance, but his sullen expression never changes, even as a stripper grinds against his leg.
The music changes. “It’s her,” David says. And it is. America Perez is still a small girl. Her tiny hands look absurd clinging to the pole on the stage. Beneath the makeup, and the done-up hair, it is still easy to see it’s her.
I wonder how to get the girl’s attention without waving a dollar bill.
“This isn’t right,” I say, and finish my drink in one long draw. “She can’t see us.”
David looks alarmed, like I’m suggesting we storm the stage.
“We have to go,” I say. I scan the bar for the waitress. “David, I can’t—I can’t pay for your drink.” He pulls a wadded five from his pocket and drops it on the table. I tuck a twenty under my glass, and drag David to the door. The night air is a relief. It has stopped raining, though the parking lot is still wet. Droplets of water on the windshield of my rental car catch and reflect the streetlights.
Though it has been four years since my last cigarette, I bum one from David. He cups his hand and lights it for me. I close my eyes and shake my head at my own stupidity. David asks what we are going to do next. I want to grab America, cover her in a blanket, stick her in the back seat of my car, blast the heater, make her a cup of cocoa.
A car pulls into the lot and parks at the far end, away from the street. I check the time on my phone; the lock screen is a picture of my daughter gnawing on ribs, her checks covered with barbecue sauce.
“Get in the car,” I tell David. If I take him back to base now, I may still be able to catch the red-eye home.