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A few nights after the alien death, Simon found himself positioned next to Jo under the tables. It was bound to happen sometime, Simon knew, but having her right next to him made his movements feel awkward and clumsy. Jo had gelled with Early and Simon at work, but Simon was aware that her banter and good nature was more than just fraternal good will among Army vets. She was flirting with him, and Simon was doing his best to flirt back. According to Early, his attempts were pretty lackluster.

Now Simon had Jo to his immediate left, and two years of experience flew out of his head. His feet kept slipping out of the stirrups, and, when one of the dangling straps brushed against him, he jumped like it was a snake. He kept trying to flex his muscles in some sort of impressive display, which threw any kind of natural rhythm off, even though it was dim under the table and unlikely Jo was even looking at him.

Finally, he got himself together and in position. He snuck a peek to his left and noticed with surprise that Jo was looking around at the others. She was the only other person he’d seen do that. She turned towards him, and Simon smiled and gave a thumbs up sign and was immediately mortified. Even in the twilight, he could see that lopsided grin appear on her face, and he flushed, both grateful and disappointed when the staff dropped the table cloth and sealed them in near total darkness.

About two-thirds of the way through that evening’s dinner, Simon heard Jo take a sharp breath and let out a soft groan. His eyes had grown accustomed to the small shafts of light that crept under the table, and he could just make out Jo’s face squinting uncomfortably, her head down. He knew what that look meant, had worn it himself a few times. Occasionally the SEETs got frisky or impatient and did a bit of what Early called “cave diving.” They would use their fingers or tongue to probe inside the servers’ anuses, looking for more treats. One more unpleasant experience which the servers justified to themselves by checking their bank accounts and tip jars frequently.

Without really thinking about it, Simon reached out his hand. Jo saw the movement in the darkness and put her hand in his. Two or three times she squeezed him roughly, the SEET clearly continuing its spelunking adventures.

Then it was over, the aliens gone, and the servers pulled up their paper pants and unbuckled themselves from the harnesses that look so much like torture devices. Jo moved quickly, angrily, throwing the straps aside and scrambling out from under the table before anyone else. She turned and snatched her portion of the tip off the table, crumpling the bills tightly, and stomping towards the locker room. Simon wanted to say something, make her laugh and know he understood. But he didn’t have Early’s knack for always saying the right thing, and he just watched her storm off in silence.

When Simon and Early emerged from the locker room into the main room of the restaurant, Jo was waiting. She was wearing a black leather jacket, adorned with some unit patches and logos on the front and back. Her hands were stuffed in the pockets and she was staring at the wall when Simon and Early approached.

“Hey, Jo, whaddya know?” Early said, wearing his broad and easy smile. Simon had told him what went on at dinner, and he said, “I heard one of the SEETs got kinda too friendly with you, tickled your throat a little.”

Jo looked at Early sharply, and he held his hands up in mock surrender. “Woah, hey, we’ve all been there. Professional hazard. Just the other day, I had this one, whatever his name is in SEET-ese, it’s gotta translate to John Henry, because this fucker was digging tunnels. For the next two days my bung didn’t have enough pucker left to make any noise when I farted.” He held up the upside-down OK sign that signified his asshole and made a trumpety fart noise.

Jo stared at Early for a second, and Simon thought she might slug him. But then she just threw back her head and laughed, punching him in the arm instead. “You’re the real bunghole, pendejo.” She returned his hand gesture with a smirk.

The tension had left her stance, and as Jo turned to Simon she was more at ease. “I just wanted to thank you. You know, for what you did back there.”

“I, uh. Sure. Anytime. I just wanted to help.” Simon said. He could see Early out of the corner of his eye, rubbing the bridge of his nose and shaking his head.

“That’s the second time you’ve told me that you just wanted to help. I think maybe you’re too modest.” Jo said to Simon, grinning her grin. Simon smiled back sheepishly, face red.

Early, not one for awkward silences, jumped in. “So Doc and I were going to hit a few clubs, sip some drinks and relax. You should come.”

“Uh, yeah.”” Simon said, acting as if they had indeed made such plans. “You should join us, hang out.”

Jo nodded, still looking at Simon. “Okay, yeah. Sounds like fun.”

Just then a group of five Marines stepped into the main portion of the restaurant, jawing at each other loudly.

“Oh, shit!” Early said, slapping his head exaggeratedly. “I totally forgot! I’m supposed to go out with the Oorahs tonight, show them how a real man parties.” He looked at Simon meaningfully. “Well, shoot, that shouldn’t stop you two from going out. Grab a few drinks, shoot the shit. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

They watched as Early did a limping jog to the back of the main room, grabbing one of the Marines in a joking headlock and getting lifted off his feet for his trouble. Simon saw him whisper something to them, and they all laughed loudly. They waved to Simon and Jo as they walked by, Early in tow. “We’ll try to bring this Army maggot back in one piece, but I don’t promise nothin’,” one of them said as they left the restaurant, leaving Simon and Jo by themselves.

“Look, if you don’t want to go out tonight, that’s cool…” Simon started.

“No, it’s fine. Why should those guys have all the fun, you know? Show me around this town.”

“Great, I know this bar not too far from here. I hear they have great finger…” Simon trailed off, and then laughed. “I was going to say, ‘I hear they have great finger food, if you’re hungry,’ but that doesn’t really apply to either of us anymore, does it? I guess it’s been a while since I’ve taken anyone out.”

Jo gave him the grin, and slipped her arm through his. “Don’t worry about it, we can sit there and smell the food together, remember what it was like to be poor but well fed.”

Simon hadn’t been on a real date since before moving to New York, and he quickly realized just how much of dating really revolved around food. Fortunately, the shared strangeness of their situation made the whole thing amusing. They stayed at Simon’s bar until almost closing, sipping drinks gingerly so as not to “pollute” themselves too much. Simon made sure he tipped the waitress well, so she was more than happy to let the two nurse their few drinks in peace.

Simon and Jo talked about their families and time in the army, why they’d enlisted, those sorts of things, broken up by a few games of pool on the crappy billiards table in the back of the bar. Simon was surprised to learn that Jo had joined the military to escape her three older sisters, who were all members of a gang called 13 Ladrón. When Jo graduated high school, the three sisters had tried to jump her into the gang by beating her up in a park, but Jo broke one of their noses and ran off, and the next day she signed up for the army. The more she talked about her past, the more Simon heard the LA street creep into her voice.

“When I got out of the VA hospital and went home, nothing had changed. My sisters were still running with the gang, selling drugs and sometimes hooking. I had the offer to work at Merdeux in LA, and so I took it and moved to a nicer area, cut off contact with them. It was all good for a few months, but then they found me. My second oldest sister, Azucena — she was the one whose nose I broke — she got shot and killed. So my other sisters found me and said it was, like, my duty or something, to take her place. And they wanted to know what I was doing to make so much money, why I wasn’t sharing the scam with them, like there was no way someone from our family could make an honest living, you know?”

Jo brushed a single fat tear from her eye and threw it onto the bar floor. “Sucks man, because that’s your family, right? Your family is supposed to take care of you. All those maricón fuckers talk a big game about La Raza, staying unified and shit, sticking with your own. But the truth is, what good is La Raza if your own family keeps trying to drag you down? That’s when I realized in my whole life, the only time I felt like I had a real family was in the army. And I knew then that I could choose my people. So I decided to leave, you know? Find somewhere fresh and decide on my own who I wanted to call family.”

Through the end of her story, Simon held her hand gently. He didn’t really understand everything she was saying — his own family had always been there for him — but as he thought about Early and the other guys at the COP with whom he’d spilled blood and sweat, he understood enough.

After the bar, Simon and Jo walk around the city together, arm in arm, staying in the areas where everything stayed open all night. They eventually wound up in front of a 24-hour movie theater, where Simon bought two tickets to some romcom that was funny and forgettable. They joked about how watching a movie wasn’t the same without popcorn, and for most of the movie Simon kept his arm around Jo, and she rested her head against his shoulder.

When they got out of the movie, the sky was just beginning to lighten. “I sure am glad I don’t have a nine-to-five job, I’d be hurting,” Simon laughed. “Normally I’d ask if you wanted to go for breakfast, but under the circumstances…”

“Well, I bet the restaurant delivered the food to my place already. I could, you know, maybe pick it up, come by your place? Maybe we could, like, share techniques, for getting down any gross stuff.”

Simon’s apartment was within walking distance, so he hailed Jo a cab. He gave the driver his address, and, by the look on the guy’s face, paid him a bit too much for an early morning rush round trip.

The door to Early’s room was closed when Simon got in, and when Simon put his ear against it he could hear Early snoring loudly. The intercom beeped about thirty minutes later, and Simon quickly buzzed Jo in and helped her with her Merdeux package.

They laid the food out on the kitchen table, sitting adjacent to each other and reading each item aloud as they placed it down. Jo’s boxes didn’t have anything too strange; it was all “normal” food, if combined in strange ways: meatloaf with flambéed peaches and marshmallow cream made her laugh.

Simon wasn’t so lucky. One of his boxes contained boiled tube worms in turkey gravy. He’d never seen a tube worm outside of a marine nature program, but he knew that its feathery feeding parts were going to give him fits. He looked mournfully at Jo. “You have any tips for hair and dangly bits like these guys? I, uh, have some problems with my gag reflex.”

“I think I might be able to help motivate you, at least,” Jo said, her sexy, strange grin creeping across the right half of her face. She had already taken off her Army jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, and now she undid the first two buttons of her blouse. She picked up one of the tube worms and draped it across the top of her breast, the gravy slowly dripping down her cleavage.

She laughed sweetly at Simon, his eyes wide and mouth agape. Pulling herself closer, she whispered, “Just remember, we have to eat all our dinner before we get dessert.”

It was both Simon’s strangest sexual encounter and his strangest food experience, and when it was over he was sure he never wanted to go back to the old ways of doing either. Jo had been right, while she hadn’t exactly cured his gagging, she had certainly motivated him to power through it. They had retired to his bedroom, laughing and drizzling bits of food on each other and lapping it off again. When it was over, they were sticky with the remains of the meal and slick with sweat.

They ran giggling to his shower, lathering their bodies. Simon saw the scars across Jo’s back for the first time, two ugly shrapnel wounds and some burns under her left shoulder blade. He ran his hands over them gently, and, when she tensed slightly at his touch, he soothed her with kisses to the back of her neck and ears. They made love again, slowly, pressed up against the steamy tile wall.

When they were done, they stumbled back into his bedroom, exhausted from their overnight activities. They saw the mess they had left and laughed. His sheets were a disaster, like someone had murdered a food mascot in its sleep. Simon tore them off the bed, bundled them up, and threw them in the corner. He took his large comforter, which had been spared the worst of the stains, and spread it on the mattress. They climbed in, wrapping the ends around each other like a sleeping bag, and fell asleep immediately: wet and satisfied bodies tangled around one another.

Early woke them in the early afternoon, bursting into Simon’s room carrying the laptop.

“Dude, Doc, you should check out these stories on the web, they’re…holy shit.” Jo buried her face in Simon’s chest, smiling and red-faced.

“Say, man, could you maybe give us a few,” Simon said with a grin.

“You did it,” Early said. “You fucking stud, you actually managed to break off a piece of that grade-A tasty.”

“Dude, seriously…”

“I’ll go, I’m out, you two get back to doing whatever it was you were doing…which by the way I hope you’re doing with protection. I’m just saying, I hear that chick will put just about anything in her mouth.”

A thrown pillow chased Early out the door.

They emerged twenty minutes later, Jo wearing her jeans and one of Simon’s old Army PT shirts, her own top stained beyond the point of polite company. “Hi, again, Early,” she said, slapping him playfully across the back of the head as he sat at the kitchen table.

“So, um, how was your night?” Simon said, sitting across from Early. Jo sat down on his knee and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Don’t you two look pleased with yourselves? My night was a blur of alcohol, stupid human bets performed by drunk Marines, and lapdances from strippers, one of whom may or may not have been a transvestite. I feel pretty confident that she was, but I’m slightly less sure about whose idea it was, and whether I liked it. Anyway, that’s what I did in the name of being a good wingman.”

“The army appreciates your services, and you are hereby honorably discharged from wingman status.”

“So Doc, check this out,” Early spun the laptop around. “That is a flyer that someone from upstate scanned into their computer.”

“It looks like one of those ads companies run in poor neighborhoods and around colleges, trying to get people to sell blood plasma or sperm,” Jo said, reading the page. “Some of my…some people I knew back in LA used to try and run scams near those places, because they always pay in cash.”

“Give the lady a prize, that’s pretty much what these are. But there’s one difference.” Early reached around and switched to a new webpage. “They ain’t payin’ for blood or manjuice.”

The webpage was a blog by a college kid, talking about a new medical company nearby. They apparently paid for stool samples, ostensibly for research purposes. The company paid fifty dollars per donation, up to three times a week. There were some catches about what the student could and couldn’t eat, and among several DON’Ts was the single word: mushrooms.

“Doc, if the diaper companies are like MREs, this must be like their version of McDonalds. Fast food.”

“Diaper companies?” Jo asked. Early happily filled her in on the previous conversations, including the bit about mushrooms being verboten. “You think we’re gonna be out of a job soon?” she asked when he was done.

“Nah, they’re not making these kids eat any of the really weird stuff. You know, your bugs and inedible crazy crap in jell-o. They still need us for that. We’re the Wolfgang Pucks of the shit-eating culinary experience. But I’m telling you, these SEETs are branching out, taking over. First our babies, now our college kids and homeless dudes. Pretty soon our grandparents are gonna be droppin’ trou and bending over to drop a steamer in some alien’s face. This is some insidious shit, and most folks have no fucking clue.”

Simon laughed. “I can’t tell if you’re actually serious about this, or if it’s just a big joke to you.”

Early grinned wanly. “Yeah, me neither,” he said, spinning the laptop around to continue surfing.

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