I’m sorry I got your kid killed (Alex)
Sherman caught up with me about two blocks away from Dylan’s apartment. I heard him calling, but kept walking. I was too caught up, too angry, to stop.
He finally came up to my side and matched my pace. He didn’t say anything at first.
It was a chill afternoon, a little dark, and a few leaves were scattered here and there. It matched my dark mood perfectly.
I finally came to a full stop. Sherman took two more steps before he could halt his momentum, then spun around and said, “You’re taking this well.”
“I could kill him,” I said.
“Anger is good,” he replied.
“I can’t do anymore crying, all right? He’s made his stupid decision.”
“You want to talk?”
I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. I couldn’t zero in on my emotions. There was an empty hole there. That scared me, more than anything else I’d experienced. How did Dylan have the power to just … take away a part of me like that? I knew it was a matter of time before the pain came. And when it did, I don’t know what I was going to do. Maybe just fall apart entirely.
I gave a firm nod. “All right.”
So we turned, and walked to the coffee shop.
“Let’s sit outside,” I said.
He nodded, and we went in and got our coffee, then sat down at the seats closest to the street. He ostentatiously slapped a pack of cigarettes against his hand several times, then ripped off the cellophane, and lit up a cigarette.
I said, “Can I have one?”
He blinked, then passed a cigarette over. “I didn’t think you smoked.”
“I don’t. Let me have a light.”
He shook his head. “Seems like everyone I know is making stupid decisions today.”
“Fuck off,” I answered, then took his lighter and made an attempt at lighting the cigarette. I took a long drag from it, feeling it burn down my throat, then coughed.
“God, that’s nasty,” I said.
I took another drag. God, I was getting light headed.
“Look, Alex… would it help if I said this is probably temporary?”
I looked at him, and said, “No, not really.”
He frowned, then slumped in his seat.
“It won’t help, because it’s not temporary. He might change his mind tomorrow or the next day or next week, but he’ll still have the same issue. Thinking he’s not good enough. Hating himself.”
He sighed, and I took another drag off the cigarette. Now I was really buzzed. “Do you always get buzzed when you smoke?”
He shook his head. “No… that’s only for people who are smoking for the first time, or who only rarely do it.”
I think I grunted. It was disappointing to hear that. What was the point in smoking then?
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
He nodded, and took a sip of his coffee. He was slumped down in his chair, staring at the traffic, then said, “I hope it isn’t selfish to say, I hope you won’t give up on him. Dylan’s a good guy. He’s just … a little fucked up right now.”
I nodded, then stamped out my cigarette.
“I don’t know why you smoke those things,” I said, putting my head in my hands. “I feel woozy.”
We were silent for a little while, the traffic just passing by. I was calm. Steady. Unnaturally so. I was relatively sure that once I sat down and let myself actually feel something, that was going to be the end. I wasn’t ready to fall apart. Not yet.
I looked up at the sky, then said, “No, I won’t give up on him. But I won’t … I won’t be fooled either. I love him. I really love him, Sherman. I don’t even know what to think anymore. How can he be so damn stubborn? What if he comes back around tomorrow? Do I take him back, and just get hurt again next time he’s down on himself?”
“God, I need a drink,” Sherman said.
I nodded. “Me too. But I missed all my classes today. I’m going to need to keep it together tomorrow.”
He nodded, then said, “If it helps any… ah, shit. Dylan will not appreciate this. But fuck him. I’m sending you some emails. From last March, when he first got to Walter Reed. I think you need to read them. If nothing else, it will give you some insight into the crazy shit going on in his head.”
He took out his phone, and I could see him paging through it. “All right,” he said. “What’s your email address?”
“Um… AlexLovesStrawberries, all one word, at yahoo.com.”
He grinned. “That’s hilarious. Okay. Just… delete these or something, okay? I shouldn’t be sending them to you at all. But… look. He’s my friend. And it’s killing me seeing him do this to himself.”
My phone chimed second later. I checked… it was the emails from Sherman. “Thank you,” I said.
“You going to be okay?” he asked.
I shrugged. “What’s okay, when your heart is breaking apart? I’m not going to go kill myself, if that’s what you’re asking. But no. I’m not okay.” For the first time since the talk with Dylan, my voice broke. “I’m not okay at all.”
There wasn’t anything else to say. I asked him how long he was staying in town. He said, “Couple weeks. At least that was the plan. I don’t know if Dylan’s going to want me around, but all my crap’s at his place. We’ll see what happens, okay? I’ll keep you in the loop. If nothing else, I need to try to keep him out of jail.”
I swallowed, then said, my voice very quiet, “Thank you.”
We stood, and he gave me an awkward home, and I began to trudge back to my dorm. I could see him in my mind: lean, exhausted, pale, leaning his head against the wall. Telling me that he had to protect me from him, that he was ending it, because he wasn’t good enough. The heartache and pain in his eyes as he pushed away from me.
If I had any doubts whether or not he loved me, they were gone. But maybe love just wasn’t enough.
I didn’t realize it when I started crying. Not until the guy who ran the flower shop at the corner of of West 109th and Broadway saw me. He stared, then pulled a single rose out, and said, “Hey, girl. This is for you. Whatever is making you sad… I hope this makes it better.”
I stopped, stunned, and took the rose. “Thank you,” I said, and started crying harder. “I really appreciate it,” I said, wiping my face and feeling like a complete idiot.
He literally bowed, then backed into his shop. I walked on, arriving at my dorm five minutes later. But I wasn’t ready to go in and face Kelly, so I kept going, turned right on 103rd and walked down to Riverside Park. It had been quite a while, but I used to sit on the benches here; sometimes alone, sometimes with Kelly, and watch the river.
In fact, Kelly and I used to picnic over here on the weekends last year, sometimes with Joel. We hadn’t this year, and not only did I wonder why not, but I also wondered why, when Dylan asked me my favorite thing to do in New York was, I never even included our times down here.
Of course, the answer was simple. I spent most of last year pining for him. Worrying about him, knowing he was in danger every day in Afghanistan. Then, not knowing anything at all, except that his name had failed to appear on the lists of soldiers killed-in-action, which I checked every day, but that he’d disappeared all the same.
I had no idea I was wound all up in that disappearance, in his hospitalization, in everything else.
So I sat by the river, and I thought, and I remembered.
I remembered the first time we kissed, halfway around the world from here.
I remembered sitting with him the night before we left Israel. He was wearing his black trench-coat, both of us on a wide balcony, facing each other.
I’d asked him what he wanted. Did he want to commit to each other? Was it over when we returned to our respective homes? Would we stay together, even with the distance? What did he want?
He couldn’t answer.
I remember slapping him on the chest, and crying out, “Why won’t you tell me how you feel?”
Because he couldn’t. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “I think we just need to see what happens.”
So we made no plans at all. It was all muddled, no commitment, but we still loved each other. Both of us broke it off with the people we’d been dating back home within days of our return, but even so, it was still just so unclear.
To think that less than nine months after that, he told his drill sergeant that he intended to marry me. Why the hell didn’t he tell me that?
“Hey baby, why you crying?” asked a guy on his bike, stopping in front of me. “You need some comfort?”
“Oh, fuck off,” I replied.
“Bitch,” he said, then rode off.
I took a deep breath. I was a mess. I rooted around in my purse, found a not-terribly clean napkin, and wiped my face. Then I took out my phone, and started to read. At first the messages didn’t make sense, then I realized, of course, the newest ones were on top. So I scrolled way down to the bottom, and started reading up. And tried to keep from falling apart.
MARCH 24, 2012
I’m at Walter Reed. They say I might get to keep the leg, but it doesn’t work worth a shit. What’s up with you? How’s everybody?
I miss you guys more than you know.
MARCH 25, 2012
SUBJECT: RE: WASSUP?
Holy shit, it’s alive! You get your laptop replaced? How’s Walter Reed? I’m sure the hospital sucks, but is the food at least better than here? We’re doing okay, mostly. Weber got whacked by some fucking hajis a couple weeks ago, and Sergeant Colton got hit. Colton’s back on duty already, and raising hell because we got caught with a fifth of gin in the tent. Bet he took it to drink himself.
I miss you too, dude. For one thing, there’s no one here worth talking to. Bogey keeps going on about his fucking conquests with girls, all day and all night long. The only conquest he’s ever really had is with his hand. Which, we caught him doing, on patrol. I mean, come on, in your sleeping bad at the FOB, sure, but out in the field? Give me a fucking break.
You ever hear from Alex?
Write me back and soon, motherfucker. If they don’t extend us, I’ll be out of here in six more months. Or so. Whenever. I hate this fucking place.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the tone of the emails, even though my heart gave a twinge at the sentence You ever hear from Alex? They sounded just like the way Dylan and Sherman talked with each other. I continued to read, slowly scrolling up after each email.
MARCH 25, 2012
Sorry to hear about Weber. Wow, I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye. Or something. I’ve been thinking about going to see Robert’s parents when I get out of the hospital. But I don’t know, maybe I should stay away. How do you tell someone’s mom, “I’m sorry I got your kid killed.”
As far as Alex goes, we’re done. I’m pretty sure she staged the whole fucking thing anyway. But seriously, I never had any business falling for her. She’s way out of my league. I hate it, but that’s life.
Tell Sergeant Colton I had two liters of vodka in my bags, and I want that shit back. I know he took it before they shipped my stuff here.
APRIL 1, 2012
Stop calling me Weed, Mr. Studmaster.
On that topic: You need to sit back and take a good look at the pictures you have of you and Alex together. Yeah, she probably got over you. But if I were you, I’d be chasing that down. Seriously.
With regards to Roberts: don’t be an asshole. You didn’t get him killed, the hajis did. Not your fault, dude. If we hadn’t been out on that patrol, someone else would have. And they’d be just as dead.
So, seriously, don’t take this the wrong way. But go see a shrink. Like tomorrow. You got knocked on the head pretty hard, and the things you’re writing worry me.
P.S. Sorry it took me so long to write back. Been out on a fucking 5 day patrol. They’re saying Lieutenant Eggers volunteered us for it, the shit.
And bullshit on the vodka. Since when do you drink?
APRIL 1, 2012
Listen, dude. We’re friends. But please don’t write to me about Alex. I’d just ruin her life. We’re too different. Sometimes I think I’m going to end up like my dad. Until my Mom got wise and kicked his ass out, he used to knock her around whenever he got drunk. Which, my friend, is why I don’t drink.
I gotta tell you, being in this hospital, it makes me think I do need a shrink. Except for my mom, who comes to visit pretty much every day, it’s very quiet here. Nurses and docs come and go. I get tests done. And I watch TV and read. That’s about it. Lots of time to think. And think. And think. Dude, I’m gonna write some stuff here I gotta think about and talk about, and you’re elected to listen. Because there isn’t anyone else.
Alex sent me a bunch of emails. Right after I blew my laptop up, and again the next day, and the day after that. Every day for a couple weeks, then about once a week. Then they stopped.
I haven’t read them. Every time I open my email, there they are. 16 unread emails. I’m sure she hates me now.
I’m also sure it’s better that way. You say I should take a second look. But I already know. I loved her more than my own life, Sherman. But she’s smart, and beautiful, and going to a great college, and has her whole life ahead of her.
I did get an email from her Dad. He’s a real sweetheart. Former Ambassador, likes to keep his tentacles in everything. Back when I went to visit her in San Francisco, a couple years ago, he took me aside at one point to tell me what a worthless piece of shit I was. That I wasn’t nearly good enough for his daughter. Would you believe he had run a background check on me? And my parents. I’m sure he dug up some good stuff on Dad. He told me to stay the hell away from her in his email. “Let her believe you are dead. It’s better for both of you.”
The thing is though, he’s right. She’s got a chance for a beautiful life. I, on the other hand, am a disabled vet who gets seizures, and blackouts, and flashbacks. Sometimes I wake up at night screaming. Because I keep having the same dream over and over again. We’re headed down that fucking dirt road, and I can see the bomb coming, it’s right out there in the open. And I can’t stop it. It’s headed right for me, and we’re going to run over it, and I grab the wheel, and it’s too late. Boom. Roberts is vaporized, about two gallons of his fucking blood all over me, and then, eyes open, I’m awake and screaming my fucking head off. They come and give me sedatives, and I’m out again. Until the next night.
I’m never going to be worth a shit after this. She doesn’t deserve that. She doesn’t need me in her life, dragging her down, ruining everything for her.
Ray, I love Alex, like nothing you can imagine. And because I love her, I’m going to leave her alone, and let her move on. Anything else would be hurting her. And I would kill myself before I harm one hair on her head. And that’s not an idle threat.
So, no more fucking talk about Alex, all right? The subject is closed.
APRIL 1, 2012
Your email made me cry like a fucking baby.
All right. I won’t bring up Alex again. But you better fucking promise to get better. Do you hear me? I don’t give a shit how bad you feel. Get better. Man up. Do whatever it takes to get it through your head that a) you’re a good guy, and b) you deserve better than the shit you’re writing about, and c) You are NOT fucking responsible for Roberts’ death.
Dude, get some help.
Fuck the Army,
Oh, God. I missed him. I loved him. But I didn’t know how to help him. I don’t know that anyone could. Not unless he was willing to help himself. And this about my father, I had no idea. Dad and I would be having a discussion when I went home for the holidays.
I did some googling. “How to Help a friend with PTSD.” And it wasn’t much help, to be honest. It was all generic, useless stuff. Don’t take his behavior personally. Have good boundaries. Yeah, right. Don’t judge. Love them.
Oh, god. I couldn’t stop loving him. But I couldn’t help him either.
The sun was setting, on what was possible one of the longest, and saddest, days of my life. I stood up, put my phone away, picked up my rose, and began walking back towards my room.
This is first draft material from a new story I’m working on. You can find the beginning and contents of the story, here. I love feedback, and would appreciate hearing any thoughts about the story. You can also check it out on Goodreads or Wattpad.