Love isn’t fair. Neither is war. I pursued one to get away from the other. I wasn’t good at either of them.
Loud noises still make me jump. So does the smile of a girl on the street. The white flash of teeth, that small look down, then back up to me.
Bam, whiff of perfume.
Straight through my chest, wounded heart. Stagger. Don’t stop soldier. Get up. Keep going.
Another casualty on the battlefield of my life.
I got back home though. Back from the foreign. Some of it still with me. Waves of strange words and smells. The little hand gestures, the small facial reactions. I still hear their songs at dusk, that distant warbling. I wonder if it’s a hunting call? Folk song? Husband singing to his wife? Like so much sand I saw, it permeates and relentlessly crawls. There was no stopping it.
Some of the old crowd wanted to ask. Don’t blame them for being curious. For being on both sides of a gun. The daily grind to keep it together. But then they got that look in their eyes. ‘He’s changed.’ ‘Don’t ask him.’ ‘Just don’t bring it up.’ ‘Dude, don’t you-just, I’ll tell you later.’ ‘When he’s ready, he’ll talk, don’t push.’ Later I was angry that they weren’t doing anything for me. I didn’t even know if it was about her, me or being over there.
Post Romantic Stress Disorder.
Shell shocked, shaken not stirred.
Life at that point wasn’t about being fair. I was plodding along the ‘Best Choice’ I had. What they expected of me. There was comfort in that rut. Give me a chance to keep busy, deny what happened.
It was stupid really. Tuesday afternoon, walking across campus to get to the best coffee. I was sick of the cafeteria brew. The vending machines did it worse. Really. I’ve served my country. Proudly. But that stupid entitlement came up. I deserved better. I needed better.
Just a better coffee and I would be able to make it through the day. Get back to denying later. Just a quick little escape from being the walking wound that everyone saw. Just let go of that painful rut. Grab a hot cup, be done with it. Just for a little bit. It’ll be fine soldier. Keep your head low, no one gets hit. Skip lecture, grab a hot cup.
But the universe had other plans for me.
Did I run into her? Or did she run into me? There was a collision. Oddest one I’ve seen or been in. Worlds collided. In a moment, there was stumbling, unbalance, limbs flailing. Bodies in motion, hovering over bank of crisp November snow. She falling ontop of me, me checking our fall.
It was the only polite thing to do at the time.
Bags flying. Hers raining a mess of RPG dice, earmarked paperback Zelazney, doorknob, and pack of European cigarettes. Mine thumping with textbooks, practical laptop, brown bag ziplock sandwich.
We stopped for that one weightless moment. Eye contact. Surprise, recognition, and empathy from her. I loved her in that moment, saw a lifetime. One blue eye, one hazel. Thick framed glasses and a tossle of green dyed hair.
We landed. Touchdown. She surprisingly light and comfortable, still took my breath away.
“Sorry.” She finished. Then she really saw me. How couldn’t she? Being this close to the hurt. “I am so sorry.”
Every wound, every hurt was laid bare. Categorized and tended to with soothing apology by those four words. It was the most sincere thing I’ve ever heard. It was a different kind of hurt that I felt. A cramp that let go, a strain that held on for too long. She held me, and I let her.
“I’m Hildy,” She said sometime later. “The women in my family have the sight. Also we smell like butter tarts when the weather changes.”
“Joe,” I offered. Damn this insecurity. Did my voice crack? Sure it did. Nice going hot shot. Best hug ever and you have to be awkward-
“You can do better than that.” She kept her head down on my parka’d chest. “It’s okay. Let go.”
Another tear. One in my crumbling defenses. Another tear down my cheek.
“I’ve… always wanted to be something more iconic. Some sort of name that carries, something. Like Bob. Bob’s are pleasant and nice guys. Or maybe a pulp hero. Just tired of Generic Joe, what do you know?” I adjusted holding her, unsure of where to put my arms.
“It’s okay, you can touch me. I’m not her.” I could feel her grin.
“That is not fair.” Another wound examined, feel the tensing defensive.
“No it’s not Lamont.” She pushed herself up, that quirky little frown showing off dimples. “Carter? That fits. Besides, a girl has to have her secrets.”
“I can’t have any of my own. Can I?”
“For a little bit. Then you have to let them go. Understand?” She poked me in the hurt. Right in the chest with knitted red and green mittens. “This is not a secret.”
“Shows that bad huh?”
“Yep, just like you not really saying anything. Just ignoring, making background noise. Not noticing an an amazing woman like myself.” She lay back down again. My backside was getting wet and cold. But that was something far off informing me. All I could do is smell baking. Fresh, warm. Butter tarts. My heart kicked a little.
Around us, people walked by. No one politely asked if we needed help. Just two people in a snowbank. It got quiet, I could hear her breathing. For a moment, I wished she was asleep, just for her to stay with me. Share a dream.
“I don’t want to go anywhere. Just here. For a while. Just don’t-”
She held me tighter, “It’s okay. Change is painful. My Nan told me that a big pain would hit me this week. I was afraid it was my period.”
I laughed loud. Barking, stopped, then snorted. “Sorry. I-”
“That time you’re not. Jerk.” She chuckled and wriggled a little into the snuggle. “She. She couldn’t get this close, could she?”
“No. I tried. At least try and find a way how. But she couldn’t. Always about what others wanted, not what she needed. There were few moments-”
“But not enough?”
“No. She was content being distant. Having that control, keeping me in her plan. Couldn’t handle it. So I decided to commit suicide, signed up. Serve my country.” I looked away from the sky. Found one of her eyes the same colour, the other warm earth hazel. “I want to kiss you.”
“That’s a happy thought. No noise there. Sincere.”
“This is really happening right? I didn’t hit my head? You aren’t some amazing hallucination that snuggles strangers in snowbanks in public? Cause if-”
I couldn’t look at her then. It really wasn’t. This was actually happening. Flag painted hopeful white. I could breathe again, almost too easily.
“It’s going to get weird. I don’t handle change well…or good. Or however you say it. I’m going to get grumpy. I’m going to brood. I’m going to have a proper sulk. My therapist said I should do this, write about it, and-”
Mitten over my mouth, “Hallucinations don’t support people when they are down. Hallucinations don’t mock the Batman brood that dudes do. Or bring tasty sandwiches.”
“You know what I really want? Everything. The good, bad, hot, cold. Rough patches, smooth. I want it all. Even your secrets. You’ve amazed me.”
She sparkled when she smiled, “You’ve got issues mister.”
“Working on them.” I ventured a guess. “You need to grow up.”
Surprise for her, I leaned in to steal a kiss. She pressed against me. Smiling through the kiss. Eventually we came up for air, dizzy and grinning.
“You think this is going to work?” I asked, less of that creeping doubt.
“I hope so. If it doesn’t, I wouldn’t want anyone else to fix it. Just you and me.”
I held her. She let me. It wasn’t awkward. Surprisingly comfortable and felt good that I could do that. Surprised myself that I had the strength.
“But don’t get too comfortable. There are going to be fights. You and me. You, me, and the world. You and yourself. The world and me. Cause that’s how it works. We fight for each other. And for us.” Her eyelashes tickling the stubble on my cheek. “But for now, I’m taking you home. Nan is going to get you out of those pants. I’ll let her. And I’m going to get you what you need. Whether you like it or not.”
Smelled it again, butter tarts. Change.
The ceasefire was abrupt, moving out of the hurt zone. Yeah, love wasn’t fair at all.