"What You Can Do" by Adam Straus

Adam Straus

Adam Straus

Adam Straus is a Marine veteran. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Hopkins Review, trampset, JMWW, The Los Angeles Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Adam holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden.

What You Can Do

The President of the United States of America calls and says we need you. You think, this has got to be a mistake. Because the President of the United States of America is talking about some type of top-secret mission, parachuting into the ocean off the shore of a hostile country and swimming up a roiling river to a hostile city, built atop an underground tunnel complex. In that underground tunnel complex, elements of the hostile country’s hostile government are collaborating with an international terrorist organization to build a nuclear/biochemical super weapon that will destroy the Western way of life. Your mission is to disarm the weapon. The President of the United States of America says to take some time to think about it. A week or two, at most.

You want to help: You’re generically post-9/11 patriotic, paying lip service to all the ways in which we’ve fucked up without losing the popcorn kernel-sized conviction buried in your chest that we’re the good guys. More than what you can do for your country, though, there’s what your country can do for you, which in this case is getting you the fuck out of New York. Life’s a permanent hangover. A perpetual state of waking up alone and nauseous, wondering what there is to do until it’s time for bed again, groaning at the sight of pending credit card charges. Slogging through digital marketing team synchs, listening to Andy blah blah blah, waving his veiny hands in front of the camera to illustrate some point about how the new email campaign has to really tell the company’s story, really construct a narrative. What’s the story of a cloud hosting platform that focuses on the hospitality industry? What is a cloud hosting platform that focuses on the hospitality industry?

As far as stories go, at least this mission’s not a boring one. At least it’s different. But there are logistical concerns. Though your job’s fully remote, you still need to be online, and this mission seems like it’ll come with some hefty OOO time. Based on your last performance review, that’s probably not such a good idea right now. Plus, you’re Kira’s maid of honor and her bachelorette is in Charleston in two weeks; the Airbnb’s in your name, you can’t not go.

There’s also the questions of 1) how the fuck did the President of the United States of America get your phone number? and 2) why the fuck does the President of the United States of America think you’re the right person for this mission? You think you know. You fucked Nick a few years ago, just after college, when your friends were having a competition to see who could get a guy to believe the most outrageous lie. Ali convinced a boy she had fourteen toes by doing this contortionist thing every time he tried to count them. Kira rented a storage unit and spent a week moving her stuff out just to show a guy she met at work she lived in a completely empty apartment, no furniture or decorations or silverware in the drawers. He spent the night on the floor next to her; she woke up with his jeans draped across her shoulders like a shawl.

Meanwhile, you matched with Nick on Hinge. He replied to a picture of you on top of Mount Washington to say he’d been there, and you asked if he’d driven up. He thought that was funny even though you weren’t joking; he looked kind of doughy in his photos, flirting with the northern edge of dad bod cute. He was two years out of law school, soft brown eyes, smiling in every picture. Which felt refreshing.

But there was no time to stare at Nick’s profile. Over the course of a week, you watched every military movie ever made and read corresponding critiques of what they got wrong. Read every military memoir written since World War One. Went to the local VFW outpost every night and drank cheap beer while squirreling away others’ stories to use as your own.

Nick asked lots of semi-thoughtful questions. What was it like playing soccer in college? Did you have a special varsity athlete dining hall? Do you miss being on a team? By the time he asked if you wanted to get drinks at this new cocktail bar with a bowling alley in the basement, the answer was yes.

The date itself was fun but rushed. Nick wanted to open up about how hard first dates were, how tough it was to be his best self once or twice a week, the ways rejections and missed connections made him question everything about who that best self even was. You just wanted to kick his ass in bowling (he was atrocious) and fast forward to the hushed postcoital intimacy where lies flourish like mushrooms beneath a rotting log.

And suddenly you were there, curled against his soft downy stomach, your face twisted away, talking about how things have been tough since you came home from the war.

“Which war?” Nick mumbled into your hair.

“It’s all the same war,” you said. He thought that was very profound.

You told him about childhood hunting with your dad in Vermont (true) to put food on the table (the first of many lies). Graduating high school with no prospects, the brutal shock of boot camp, years as a lowly grunt stationed in the Mojave Desert near Twentynine Palms, the grueling training to prepare for Afghanistan and Iraq. You told him about the pride you felt in being selected for a top-tier commando unit and the selection pipeline that made everything you’d done to date look like a joke. Operations in Syria, Somalia, Libya, Niger, Mali, the southern Philippines, and several other global hotspots you weren’t at liberty to discuss. Finally, the realization you’d done your part for your country, and it was time to leave the military for a quiet bliss you’re still trying to believe is possible for a war-scarred soul like yours.

“Do you have PTSD?” he asked.

“No,” you said. You hadn’t studied that.

“I think you have PTSD,” he replied knowingly. “It’s ok. My neighbors set off fireworks on July 4th but I’ll ask them not to this year.”

“It’s January.”

“Halfway there.”

Of course you didn’t celebrate July 4th with Nick. You followed him on Instagram, though, which was probably why he thought it was ok to request a connection on LinkedIn (psychotic behavior, Ali and Kira both agreed), which is how you know he left his corporate law job for something at the State Department before settling into a non-appointed position on the National Security Council, which is how he must’ve been in the room to tell the President of the United States of America to call you, imagining your actual work history staring up from his phone was in fact the elaborate lie.

When the President hangs up, you type a message to Kira and Ali. lmaooooo you’ll never guess who just called me. Then you remember Kira’s on a weeklong technology-free “pre-honeymoon” yoga retreat with Colin, who’s long since admitted he knew the empty apartment was some sort of prank but went along because it seemed harmless. And it’s between 6 AM and 9 PM, meaning Ali’s probably in the lab for the food start-up she founded, specializing in lab-grown bibb lettuce to pair with lab-grown burgers. No phones allowed for sanitary reasons.

You like Colin and you’re happy Ali’s company’s doing well. It’s just that there was a time when you and Kira trained for a marathon together, six days a week, and your off day was on Mondays, when Ali came over to watch HGTV re-runs. Twenty minute doses of beauty from the ashes, new lives emerging from remodeled kitchens. At the time you thought it was the peak of post-college togetherness for the three of you, but looking back, you see the cracks. Kira liked the banter between the Italian guy with the sledgehammer and the interior designer with fake fingernails. Ali liked daydreaming about the money from house flipping. You only cared for the before and after, the simple act of reinvention.

So you delete unsent the message for Kira and Ali, and instead, DM Nick. heyy :) did you tell the president of the united states of america i’d be able to go on a top secret mission soon? to which he replies too quickly Haha yeah, sorry if that’s weird. I just kind of blurted it out in a meeting. Guess I was thinking about you. And I do think you’d be perfect for this. LMK the next time you’re in DC, we should totally grab a drink and catch up!

Nick’s wrong: You’re not perfect for this. But you’re not terrible, either. You’re usually towards the top of the board at Orange Theory. Made the varsity swim team as a freshman before quitting to focus on soccer. Not scared of heights, or at least not scared enough to have enjoyed rock climbing with an ex in college. And you’re obviously really good at lying.

You do some research, realize this is actually doable. There are private skydiving lessons building up to a HALO jump (that stands for high altitude, low opening) in ten days. Landing in water will be new, but you can figure that out, just as you can figure out how to SCUBA dive in a three-day course at the YMCA’s deep pool around the corner. There’s an indoor shooting range on Long Island that rents guns for target practice. Twenty minutes on the LIRR and a short Uber ride away. As for the weapon itself, in every movie, the hero calls someone to talk them through defusing a bomb. You’ll call too, when the time comes.

Before that, set your credit card on autopay. Tell your parents you’re going backpacking for a bit, unplugged, and you love them a lot. Quit your job via email and when Andy replies all wishing you the best, reply all saying fuck you in particular. Text Nick Ya I’ll definitely hit you up!, meaning thanks (seriously) but no thanks.

Don’t flake on Kira’s bachelorette, though, because the President of the United States of America says you can report to the White House two weeks from Monday. The plan is not to get too insanely drunk with the big mission coming up, but Ali makes her patented (yes, she actually patented them) Death by Jiggle Jello Shots in the Airbnb’s kitchen. After three of them, there’s no stopping anything. No stopping Kira from demanding one more round before heading to the bar, no stopping Ali from sitting on your lap in the Uber even though the middle seat’s open, and no stopping the tears that come when you realize what you really want is for the three of you to go on this mission together.

Think of how the three of you fanned out across the app to find this Airbnb. How easily the plan for this bar crawl came together. The way the three of you just do fun, effortless, stupid shit and suddenly Kira’s engaged to Colin, Ali’s making a deep connection with a polydactyl potential investor, and you’re, well, you’re leaving. Alone. Maybe.

Two hours of drunk dancing later, you drunkenly duck out of the bar, inhale a deep drunken breath of muggy Charleston air, and drunk dial the President of the United States of America. It’s after midnight but he’s always at his desk. He says no, you can’t bring Kira and Ali on the mission, and if you tell anyone about the mission, he’ll have no choice but to cancel the whole thing.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“I’ll think about it,” you say, and then, wearing a green wig and cowboy boots, holding a dick-shaped lollipop, you hang up on the President of the United States of America.

Inside, Kira’s in the middle of the dancefloor, waving her SAME PENIS FOREVER sash in the air. The band’s playing Friends in Low Places, and Ali’s wading through the crowd with a trio of vodka sodas. You pluck a drink from her hands before remembering you meant to stick to White Claw. But it’s fine. There’s a warm drunk feeling called it’s gonna be ok propelling you forward. It points towards where the music is loudest, where you have to shout to be heard, screaming at Kira and Ali there’s something you need to tell them.