That’s what war is (Dylan)
Getting out of jail was kind of a reverse process of going in. They didn’t search me on the way out, but otherwise, it was scary similar. I signed paperwork, collected my phone and wallet and keys, and then I was free to leave.
I walked out slowly, because I was dreading it. They were probably out there. Sherman, and Alex, and her friends. And they’d seen how savage I’d been.
I did the right thing. I protected her. But … I didn’t stop. I let the rage and anger take over me to the point where if Sherman hadn’t stopped me, I would have killed him.
I would have killed him. No question.
It’s not that I hadn’t killed before. I had. Three times, that I know of for sure. Others are a little hazier, where I’d fired in the direction of buildings or insurgents under cover, but for those three, I knew for sure.
Killing is easy. It’s living with it that is difficult.
So, when the police finally let me out, they directed me to the elevators, and I was done. Two minutes later I stood in the lobby.
Alex sat across from me, surrounded by our friends.
I took a step or two forward, and the full weight of what I was planning to do sunk in. My heart started pounding like crazy, and my stomach was turning, and I wanted to turn and run away. I was having second thoughts again, very real ones. Maybe I should just stop now. And try to figure out a way to make it work. There had to be a way to make it work.
Then she looked up at me, and I caught my breath, and I could see the same happened with her. Her eyes went wide, and she stood and strode toward me. As she did, her face started to twist, and she started to cry, and I couldn’t let her just cry, so I put my arms around her.
I took a deep, slow breath through my nose as I held her, inhaling the scent of her hair, her body. She was wrapped into me, her arms thrown over my shoulders.
Then she kissed me, and the feeling of her lips on mine made we want to scream in grief and terror. Was I really willing to hurt her? Was I really willing to give her up? To give this up?
Our friends approached.
“You okay, man?” Sherman asked. I lowered my arms from Alex, but she held on, shifting around to my side.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “Thanks for um.. Everything. I don’t know who paid my bail, but I’ll pay you back. I’ve got the money in the bank.”
Sherman shrugged. “We can deal with that later. Important thing is getting you out of here.”
I went along with them, because I didn’t have the courage to do anything else. We rode back to the Columbia campus in silence, with Alex resting her head on my shoulder. It was as awkward and uncomfortable a moment as I’ve ever experienced in my life. And it was only going to get worse.
Knowing that it was a matter of minutes before I was going to lose her forever, I tried to memorize Alex’s voice, her hair, her scent, everything about her. One day she was going to have a wonderful, amazing fucking life. And while I might not be a part of it, I was going to remember. I’d remember every second we had together, and never, ever let it go.
Sherman looked at me, and gave me a curious look. Almost as if he knew what I was thinking. For all I knew, maybe he did. He’s a sharp guy, and he’d been the other half a long email exchange about me and Roberts and Alex and I may have even mentioned suicide once or twice.
We dropped off Kelly and Joel, then continued on to my apartment. After getting out of the cab, I said, “I really need to wash up.”
God, I was such a coward. I couldn’t just spit it out.
But why? Why was I afraid? I was going to lose her anyway.
So, Sherman and Alex sat on the couch, and I carefully took a shower, trying not to injure my hand any further. Afterward, I slipped into my room, and changed into clean clothes. Just as I was pulling my shirt into place, there was a knock at the door.
I opened it. It was Sherman. Before I could say a word, he said, “Before you do what I think you’re about to do, you need to listen to me.”
I closed my eyes. “Sherman, this isn’t your business.”
“Yeah” he said, sounding exhausted. “Yeah, it is. Because you’re my friend. And because she’s my friend. Just hear me the fuck out, all right?”
“Jesus Christ,” I said.
He paced for a minute, turned toward me and looked like he was going to say something, then turned away.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, spit it out.”
He turned back and pointed his finger at me. “I warned her.”
“I warned her yesterday. I warned her that your fucking overblown victim mentality was going to twist things all up in a way that made you break up with her.”
“What the hell?”
He shook his head. “Tell me you haven’t been screwing yourself up to do it the whole ride home. Tell me I’m wrong, Paris.”
This time, I was the one who looked away. I couldn’t tell him that. Because he was right.
He pointed, out the door and down the hall. “She’s out there, waiting. With her hands on her lap. Her back straight. Trying to hold it all in. Trying to stay brave, even though she knows your about to fucking blow her heart into a million pieces. For the second time. Because she knows it too. We both know you as well as you know yourself, asshole. And let me tell you, you aren’t saving her from anything by doing this. You’re just going to break her heart, and your own, and fuck everything up that’s good in your life.”
I frowned, and said, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Sherman.”
“Bullshit, I don’t. I was there, Paris. I was there when Kowalski threw himself on that grenade. And I was there when Roberts died. And I’m telling you, you need to stop killing yourself over that shit. You didn’t kill either one of them. It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t mine, it wasn’t anybody’s except the fucking terrorists who killed them.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Just tell me what you were going to say to Alex.”
“Why? Why in God’s name do you care?”
“Because we’re brothers, man. We’ve been through shit no one else knows about. We’ve been through shit they don’t want to know about. And I don’t want to see you fuck your life up. And, I care about Alex and her sister, and I don’t want to see you fuck her up either!”
I shouted back. “Don’t you understand, I’m no good for her! I’m no different than my father was! What if it was her I hit? Instead of that fucking wall? What then? It’ll happen some day! Some day I’m going to lose control of myself and end up hurting her! And I’d rather die! I’ll kill myself before I do that to her, Sherman. I mean it.”
He shook his head. “That’s a fucking cop-out, Paris. You’re you, not your father.”
The door opened then. And she was standing there. Crying. And I couldn’t fucking take it any more. Because she was crying because of me. She was crying for me.
“Oh, God, Alex, I’m so sorry. I can’t do this.”
She looked at me, tears running down her face, and said, “You don’t have to.”
I turned away from them, put my hands against the wall, and slowly, slowly, leaned my head against it. “Alex,” I said, “You’re … you’re so much better than me. I was always a fuckup. Don’t you get it? I don’t want to drag you down with me.”
She approached me, and touched my arm, then slowly wrapped her arms around it.
“Dylan,” she whispered. “You bring out the best in me. You always have.”
I whispered, “But I fucked up, Alex. If I hadn’t lost it the way I did, the way my father always did, we would never have been sent out on that patrol. And Roberts wouldn’t have died.”
“Fuck,” Sherman said, throwing himself on the bed. “Maybe you’re fucking right. If we hadn’t been sent out that day, it would have been a different patrol. And you know what? Then they would have caught the shit instead. If it had been second platoon, if they’d gone out there as scheduled, and gotten fucked up like we did, would you be sitting here feeling guilty about it? Jesus Christ, Dylan. What about later on, after you left? Weber bought it three weeks later. Taking a piss, and a sniper got him. He died with his fucking dick hanging out. Is that your fucking fault too? That’s what war is.”
I looked at him, feeling as lost as I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t know that about Weber. Jesus Christ. He died taking a piss?
I took a long, careful look at Alex. At her tears and grief. And then I thought how much worse it would be if I dragged her into my world. A world where people died taking a piss, a world where drunken husbands beat their wives half to death, a world where her boyfriend was going to be on trial for assault, or maybe attempted murder.
I couldn’t do that to her.
I shook my head, in sudden negation, and said, my voice at a broken near whisper, “I’m sorry, Alex. I can’t do this to you. It’s too big a risk. It’s over. I’m so sorry.”
Her expression didn’t change, except to slightly stiffen. She stood up a little straighter maybe. But I could see in her eyes that I’d dealt a blow, one that she’d likely never forgive me for. She blinked her eyes to clear them, then said, “I am too, Dylan. You have no idea how much. But let me tell you just one thing.”
She stepped even closer than she already was, until we were face to face, no more than two inches apart.
In a clear, strong voice, she said, “You don’t get to decide what’s too big a risk for me. You don’t decide for me what’s good for me and what isn’t. That’s my decision, Dylan. And I choose not to destroy my present because of the risk of a future that might or might not happen. You should think about that.”
Then she turned and walked out.
Sherman stood there, looking at me, then muttered a curse. He shook his head, and then said, “I never thought I’d say this to you, Dylan. But you’re a fucking idiot. I’m not staying around to watch this train wreck.”
My eyes darted to him, and I said, my voice cold, “I didn’t ask you to.”
He sighed, and his shoulder slumped. He looked defeated, his face and eyes turned to the floor. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something else, but he stopped. Then he turned and left.
And just like that, I was all alone again.