“Let’s go around the table,” my new friend Ryann is saying when I approach our regular group for dinner. Like Zelda, Ryann is an orphan. The government must have some orphan recruitment initiative. “Who would each of you choose, if you were given the choice?”
“FL Stewart,” Zelda says. “Without question.”
“Yeah, probably FL Stewart,” echoes Nicole. She’s the girl I beat wrestling. We’re friends now. Her Pops works on base. She’s Korean, which is only noteworthy because she has to explain her heritage every time she meets someone new so they don’t mistake her for being Chinese. Sometimes the other cadets joke about her looking like “the enemy,” which isn’t really a joke at all because jokes are funny.
“No, FL Stewart is too intimidating,” Marcus says. His parents were conscientious objectors during the war – something I’d never heard of. They’re alive but they can’t return to the U.S., so Marcus was raised by his grandmother. “I’d go with FL Connors. At least she knows how to smile. I don’t think I’d ever say a word if FL Stewart was my mentor.”
I set my dinner tray down, piled with extra naan, and slide into my seat. “What about a mentor?”
“We’re talking about who we’d choose to be our mentors instead of the other way around,” Ryann explains, grabbing naan from my plate. “FL Stewart is a pretty obvious choice – all of his classmates look up to him and he’s got a lot of responsibility.” It was true; he runs our drills most mornings. “But I think I’d go with Second Lieutenant Saunders. He seems like he’s always having fun, even during drills. I think he’d be easy to get along with. Who’d you choose, Rio?”
I want to answer “FL Stewart” because it’s true: he’s the best. He’s the best at drills, he’s the most popular among his class, even the instructors treat him with respect not reserved for the rest of us. Also, I feel a kinship with him because of whatever dark mess lead to him wearing a helmet in place of his face.
I want to learn where his grace comes from. I want to learn how he gets other people to respect him and want to follow him. I want to learn how he built up his patience, his hope, his ability to see beyond his helmet and accomplish stuff, for lack of a better word. Because even though I’m thrilled with my new leg, I still have nightmares about the night I lost my old one. I still wish that night had never happened. I still look at other cadets and wonder, “how much better could I be, if I was whole?” And I wonder what they think of me. If they think I’m disposable or if they pity me. But I don’t want to say FL Stewart for those same reasons: it’ll draw attention to our disabilities. I’ve learned it helps if I ignore my disability and pretend that it doesn’t bother me. Other people seem more comfortable that way.
“Second Lieutenant Saunders,” I say. “He seems fun.”
It doesn’t matter, anyway. We don’t get the choice. The second- and third-year cadets choose who they want to mentor after observing us for the first part of the semester, not the other way around. And there will be about 50 of us who will be without a mentor. Mostly, I just hope I’m not one of those people.
Zelda grabs another floppy disk of naan off my plate.
“This naan has made half my taste buds die of happiness.” It’s funny: she has a flair for the melodramatic but only when it comes to food. “It doesn’t taste like any bread I’ve ever had – it’s chewier and tangier. How did you make it?”
“Yogurt in the batter,” I say. “I had to start making it two days ago. You have to boil the milk while swishing it around with a spoon and then let it sit for a few days so it can yogurtify. They would be even better but Nathan kept burning them. I had to tell him to turn the heat down his burner.”
That’s another thing about my friends: they assume I actually cook the meals we eat, so I let them.
The night before classes begin, I smuggle two eggs home from work in my bra. It’s not really stealing if no one misses them, and these eggs were cracked, anyway.
I haven’t been in school since kindergarten, so I’m understandably nervous about my first day. So is Zelda. When I get home, she’s stacking and restacking her books as if the order in which she carries them will be judged on a pass/fail basis. She doesn’t even notice as I reach into my shirt and gingerly remove the eggs, a thin strand of mucus trailing from my shirt. I crack the eggs into the cup I drink my daily muscle juice out of and began vigorously beating them until the yokes and whites froth. That captures her attention.
“What are you doing? Are those eggs?”
“For our hair.”
“You’re bizarre,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m not putting that on my hair.”
“Just trust me.”
When I was a kid, one of my favorite chores was helping my older sisters beat eggs and then massage the gooey, snotty mess into their scalps – it kept their black hair glossy and frizz-free. I figure it’s a thing Zelda and I could do together. Like a bonding thing. God knows Zelda’s hair needs all the help it can get. I gesture for her to take a seat at her desk.
“This will calm your frizz,” I explain. “My sisters used to do it growing up and they had way friskier hair than you – like as if a couple of dandelions were struck by lightening.”
“That’s a terrible simile. If dandelions were struck by lightening their seeds would just fall out. They’d be bald.”
“Can you just take a seat already?”
She sits. “Let me take my shirt off – I don’t want to get egg on it.”
“Good idea.” We both remove our shirts and just stand there for a moment. It’s surprisingly intimate. Even though we live together and we’re naked all the time, it’s in the way that you avoid eye contact with each other and each pretend you’re alone while someone’s bare ass is hanging out.
Then she takes a deep breath and sits. I drape a towel around her shoulders. “Now you’re going to want to keep this on for 10 minutes and then we’ll give you a good rinse,” I say, pouring about half the mixture on the crown of her head and begin massaging it into her scalp, working my way out to the tips. In the reflection in our window, I can see her shoulders relax and her eyes close, just as my sisters’ used to do. When I’m done, her hair sits in a sloppy, yokey pile on top of her head.
I grab my towel and take a seat.
“Let me help,” she says, standing. She takes the cup from my hand.
“Like this?” she says, even though I can’t see what she’s doing.
I feel the sudden rush of cold egg sliding down my scalp and let out an involuntary hiss but her hands are there, cupping and cradling the mess before it goos my ears, sliding it back up and rubbing it in, nails gently digging into my scalp. Soon she’s gently tugging on large pieces of hair, running the egg through to the tips, then twisting the mess and gently wrapping it on top of my head. It feels heavenly.
She sits back down and we both breathe in the peace for a moment. “Now what?” she eventually asks.
“Now we go rinse this mess out with warm water and then shampoo our hair, as normal.”
When we’re through, I instruct Zelda to never again brush her hair while dry. “That’s what makes it puff up like that,” I say. “Always comb it wet and then leave it alone. If you need to de-tangle during the day, try using your fingers or get it wet again.”
She regards me so seriously as I talk – like with respect. As long as I can keep thinking of new things to teach her, I think maybe we could be friends.