Fernando A. Flores, guest judge for our 2019 short story contest, says his favorite stories are those that “take some kind of risk, strive for something greater, unknown, undefined, and afterward leave you lost in the woods of what you read.”
“Lost in the woods” is an apt descriptor for the feeling readers may have after reading Jess Smith’s “The After Party,” an unsettling story set at a wedding. Toxic masculinity and PTSD are among the themes she tackles. After the story, Smith shares a few thoughts about the inspiration for “The After Party.”
Six of us—five groomsmen, one me—in a hotel room that smells of orange peels and Windex. The groom grew up just down the street. Ohio is mostly rolling, lush, Midwestern green, but in this town, all that landscape is buried beneath grayscaled factories and partially vacant strip malls. SPACE FOR LEASE. The only pretty things for miles, I thought as we drove here this morning, are the churches.
The men have a suite so the bed is big and the window overlooks the pool: sapphire water, one drunk couple making out halfheartedly in the hot tub. I watch as the man pulls the string of the woman’s tacky green bikini top. Maybe I recognize them from the wedding, but I can’t be sure from the third floor. I walk away from the window to the bed, wanting to be seen rather than watch.
The men all have diminutive versions of regular names: Jake, Frankie, Joey, Sammy. But they all call each other their Army nicknames: Champ, Grizzly, Back, One-Eye.
One-Eye actually has only one eye, having lost the left one during his second deployment.
“What happened?” I ask him, bare feet in my hands. I am on the king-size bed in just a men’s XL white T-shirt and hot-pink panties. One-Eye is on the floor beneath me, still in his tux, with a bottle of Jim Beam Honey tucked under his arm like a teddy bear.
“Champagne cork,” he says, flicking his fingers toward his left cheek in the gesture for explosion. “While I was on leave, too. What a fucking thing.”
I nod and tuck my chin onto my knee. His good eye drifts between my legs. I spread them just enough for him to catch a sliver of pink lace.
The fifth man, the man I came with, they call Grandpa on account of all the books he read and notes he took during their time in-country.
“This guy,” says Champ, who looks like a young Cary Grant and joked at the reception that he couldn’t get an erection with his wife ever since he saw her nursing their daughter. “This guy,” he gestures again at my boyfriend, at Grandpa, “he made his whole career off Iraq. He got a job at Stanford just by writing down the dumb shit we did.”
This statement seems to be for my benefit, as Champ casts his sloppy blue gaze my way.
“I know,” I say. “I’ve read the book.”
“Have you, then? Such a good student.” Champ’s eyes sharpen. “What’d you think of what we did over there?”
Grandpa sits up on the bed, bow tie dangling open around his neck. He encircles my waist with his arm.
“Champ, come on,” my boyfriend says. “She’s not here to review my book for you.”
“Oh yeah?” Champ says. “Then what’s she here to do?”
I met him at a writer’s conference where he was one of the featured authors. His arms were long and viscous, ending in hands that looked big enough to cover my entire face with one palm. The morning after we slept together, I woke with a tattoo sleeve of bruises up both my arms.
“I still don’t like grocery stores,” he told me our second night together. “Or anywhere with crowds.” Light rain and silver moon through the open window. I ran my fingers up his stomach.
“What do you like?” I asked. All the silky debriefings of falling in love.
Back (short for Linebacker) and One-Eye groan at Champ and Grandpa’s banter. The other man, Grizzly, is unconscious in the corner armchair. One-Eye looks to be maneuvering for another sightline to my panties, but the game turns less fun when he plays it so obviously.
“Champ and Gramp, at it again,” Back says, winking at me. “Do you want me to refresh your glass, sweetheart?”
I smile and nod, curling into my boyfriend’s armpit on the bed. We’d planned to swim in the hotel pool after the reception, but I ended up the only one in the water, the five of them cast in nightlight-blue around me, drinking and looking. I didn’t mind the show. I liked the way my boyfriend watched them watch me. Maybe he would let me call him Grandpa now, too. I want to be part of all his lives, not just the one I’ve met him in. Grizzly and Champ have wives but those wives went to bed early. I thought, Don’t ever be the wife who goes to bed.
“You two fight a lot?” I ask Champ and Grandpa. Back laughs loudly, handing me my new drink.
“Grandpa’s just mad he never got girls,” Champ cracks. “While hookers paid me to fuck them.”
“Yeah, Champ, you got it,” Grandpa says, finishing his drink and gesturing to Back for more. His arm slips from my waist.
“What do you do now, Jake?” I ask, using Champ’s real name.
“SWAT,” he answers without looking at me.
“We’re all cops except Grandpa Famous here,” Back says. “And Grizzly, who’s still in.”
“I could have been a stand-up comedian, though,” Champ says, reanimated, casting his gaze back on me. I perk up under the spotlight. “Have you ever heard the one about Kuwaiti wives?”
I shake my head.
“When I first got to Kuwait,” he begins, “I noticed that all the wives walked five paces behind their husbands. But after the war, the husbands were walking twenty paces behind their wives. So I asked a Kuwaiti woman, ‘Have that many men become progressive?’ and she said, ‘No, there are just that many land mines.’”
The men groan with laughter, this joke familiar.
“Oh, god,” I say. My boyfriend slants his eyes toward me.
“All New York girls are uptight,” Champ says flatly. I look to my boyfriend to see if he will tell Champ to lay off again. Instead he finishes his fresh glass of whiskey.
“I’m not actually from New York,” I say, my voice high and thin. I begin to feel outnumbered rather than admired, the only girl instead of the only girl.
“Did you protest the war, princess?” Champ asks. “Were you such an activist?”
“I’m leaving,” I say. I pull the T-shirt down as far as it will go and start to squirrel my way off the bed. My boyfriend grabs my wrist and shakes his head.
“Aw, come on, I’m just fucking with you,” Champ says, grinning. “Stay. I’ve got another good one.” Back is still laughing at the first joke. Grizzly is motionless in the armchair. One-Eye is as unconscious, it seems, as a man can be and still be breathing. The Jim Beam Honey trickles onto the floor.
“I’ll stay,” I say. “But no more jokes.”
“Nah,” my boyfriend says. “Tell it, Champ.”
Our third night together he asked me what I’d heard about him before I came to the conference. I shrugged and said Not much, which was a lie.
We made love six times before dawn. He said he had noticed my hair first, how it was so blonde it made its own light.
“What did you notice second?” I asked, smiling up at him, delirious with wine and the asphyxiative pressure of his body.
“Your ass,” he said, and buried me in his mouth.
“How do you drown a submarine full of blondes?” Champ asks.
“How?” Back says, gasping between giggles.
“Knock on the door.”
This time, Grandpa—my boyfriend—laughs, and I notice how big and white his teeth look. I wonder what it was like for Iraqis when he busted through their front doors on house checks, the four men in this stale hotel room right behind him, all their teeth flashing like blades, making their own light.
The fourth night we were together, we had our first fight. We drank two bottles of wine, sitting cross-legged on my bed, after he gave his big conference reading and then he said something to me like One day it’ll be you who’s the featured author here and I called him patronizing but really I was just afraid it would never happen. He said I was trying to be nice you don’t have to be a bitch and left me in the dark room.
The fifth night we made up gently. He said he wanted me to move to California for him. I said he was drunk. He asked me if I believed in God and I said Yes but maybe not the way you think. He asked if his stomach was getting fat from all the alcohol and time on the book tour and I hushed him and hushed him until he started to fall asleep. Boot camp, he mumbled, half awake. Best shape of my life.
One-Eye’s drunken snores are tires crunching over rubble. Back takes a shitty hotel pen and starts drawing penises on his friend’s cheeks, laughing so hard tears come down his own face. He says he will get Grizzly next. My boyfriend once told me that Grizzly’s high school sweetheart was pregnant when they deployed, that he sent her money every month. It turned out the baby was his uncle’s. He came home to a house emptied of all her things and half of his.
“You know, I’m not writing about you guys,” Grandpa suddenly says to Champ. “I’m writing about being a soldier.” It seems like a sentence he’s been practicing.
“Yeah?” Champ says, his legs wide on the chair, shirt unbuttoned. “How would you know anything about being a soldier?”
“Don’t start with that shit,” Grandpa says.
“You deployed with us fucking once,” Champ says. “Nothing was even happening. You could fucking read all day on that tour.”
“Our convoy was hit with an IED,” Grandpa says, his voice low. I keep looking at him thinking my boyfriend, my boyfriend. Back has gone quiet, hotel pen hovering over One-Eye’s melted face.
“Everyone’s convoy was hit,” Champ says casually. “I went back twice. I used my weapon.”
“Oh yeah, you’re such a fucking man,” Grandpa says. “Now you fight criminals so your wife can go to Kohl’s and buy Martha Stewart cereal bowls.” He gets up and pours himself another drink.
“Don’t talk about Sandra,” Champ says in a thickened voice. I am briefly ashamed when I think that his handsomeness intensifies in tandem with his anger.
“I’ll talk about whatever I want,” Grandpa says, slinging his drink. Half the floor is damp with whiskey now. “This is fucking America. Isn’t that what we fought for? Isn’t that why you fucked so many hookers at Bragg? Would Sandra like to talk about that?”
“Oh, you’re so fucking righteous, Grandpa. You come in here with this slutty little blonde who thinks she’s smart because she’s from New York and hasn’t done a fucking thing in her life. You think you’re Ivy League and money now. I fucking know who you are. I’ve fucking seen you.”
Out the window, the sky starts to pink. I feel the heat of my breath. I feel the dye in my hair. I feel my eleven-year-old self, rubbing cherry lip gloss on before her first date, believing that a boyfriend was the first step to being human.
The sixth night, I agreed to move to California with him. I fingered his rough beard. I said I love you too. His desire was the brightest spotlight I’d yet known. Being loved by him was like being famous. An overnight sensation.
Champ and Grandpa fight as if they’ve done it many times. They move rhythmically—Champ clutching Grandpa’s loose bow tie, Grandpa boxing Champ’s ribcage.
I don’t know if I try to stop them. Back is crouched between the bed and the wall. One-Eye is slightly more awake but doesn’t move from his murder-victim sprawl on the flecked carpet. Grizzly is maybe dead, the first of their platoon to go.
Champ and Grandpa stumble to the floor. Grandpa wraps his legs on either side of Champ as if he’s branding a steer. Champ’s spit flies in webs. Pinkish snot fireworks his nostrils. Even losing, Champ looks like he’s auditioning for the role of action hero.
“Give in!” my boyfriend yells, his mouth against Champ’s earlobe. The sun is up now and my boyfriend’s face looks old in the light, worry lines darkened by his exertions.
Champ slumps to his stomach. His white shirt sticks to his back where he’s sweating. Grandpa stands, swiping saliva from his face.
“He’s fine,” he says.
“Of course he’s fine,” Back says, smiling. “He’ll be up in two shakes.”
“Right,” Grandpa says, then remembers me. “Why are you still on the bed?”
I stare. I keep thinking my boyfriend, my boyfriend.
“What?” he says to me. “What?”
In our own room moments later, Grandpa pushes me onto the bed. I reach for his cheek. I say Are you okay and try getting up, but he turns me around and bends me over with his magnet hands. I say Stop it. This is how he usually likes it but he will tell me to crawl, or wiggle, or look back at him. He’ll say my name.
I say Hey. I say Stop.
He yanks my T-shirt up and I try to pull it down. The room has its own cold breeze. He leaves my pink panties on. I can feel the scratch of their lace inside me, too. My face buried in the too-soft pillows. His mouth far away from mine.
The seventh night we’re together, I leave the city and fly to California on a plane that dips and swerves. My boyfriend is waiting at the airport, arms heavy at his sides.
He gives me the New Yorker when it has poems he thinks I’ll like. I read his stories and say This, not this. He asks me if I believe in God and I remind him we’ve had this conversation. He says Oh yeah, yeah. Right. I sit at my corner desk and watch a stray tomcat wriggle outside in the grass, an oblivious gray bird pecking the nearby dirt. I tap the window glass loudly.
He tells me about a wedding. A friend from his platoon. No bonds like those bonds. Will you come? It’s near my hometown. All the guys will be there. You should see Jake’s wife—a fucking knockout. She just had a baby, but still skinny. Who knows what her tits are like though. No, don’t wear the black panties, wear the pink ones. I’ll be thinking about them under your dress all night. No, I never told you I deployed three times. Just once. You misunderstood. We’ll stay in a hotel. It’s nice. Well, I think it’s nice, maybe you won’t. You can be kinda… There’s a pool. Did I ever tell you they call me Grandpa. It’s not that funny. Hurry up. We’re going to be late.
Jess Smith on “The After Party”:
I have always been compelled by chamber pieces—films or plays where characters are, in some way, trapped together in one space for the entirety of the piece. Though this story zooms out to explore the central couple’s history, I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia and peril, one that mimics the far-reaching effects of warfare and trauma.
Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”