Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chapter Two

Well, I'm back from the desert, and back on the Bolance already. I'll post some pics and stories later, when I find the time. It's a busy week, I still have an Army Weekend among other things. For now, here's the 2nd chapter in my story:

“Amy,” I said to her. “I want to quit. I want to find a job where I can be here for you. Last night was too close for comfort, and they don’t pay me enough for that.” I looked up into her brown eyes, and they were full of worry. Her brow creased a little as she tried to frown at me, but I’d never seen her frown. I don’t think she was capable of it. She settled into a rueful smile instead.

“Paul, in the six years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you talk like that. Not even a word of it. You are a great EMT. I knew that’s what you were when I married you. That sense of purpose you carry around with you all the time is one of the things I love about you the most.” She slipped into a chair next to me and started to undo the buttons on my uniform shirt. It fell to the back of the chair, and crumpled. She ran her hands up my arms, her fingers pausing on the tattoos on my upper arms. A caduceus painted on one shoulder, A soldiers cross on the other. I’d cut my teeth as a medic in Mosul straight out of high school. Underneath the boots that made up the cross were the words “We bury our mistakes.” She read that aloud to me. “Don’t bury yourself with them.”

Her touch, her words shot across me like a wildfire. I still wasn’t sure what I planned to do, but I knew she would be with me anyway. I needed her at that moment more than anything else in the world. I kissed her forehead gently, and she leaned up, pressing her lips into mine. Her hands tightened against my arms and slipped up my back, scratching my skin and sending shivers up my spine. I stood up with her, felt her tense up and I pulled in closer. Her robe fell away from her body at my touch and we made love right there in the kitchen. I was able to forget everything. My world was Amy, and nothing else could be a part of it.

We laid there together on a blanket on the floor and she drifted into a contented sleep. My arms moved with the slow rise and fall of her breathing and my mind wandered back to six years before when we’d met. I was a 21 year old just back from a war. I’d taken home a few scars and a devil-may-care mentality. I had a brand new Chevy pickup and all I wanted was to get drunk and crawl into a hole, to wallow in failure for the guys that didn’t come home with me. Some of my buddies tried to get me away from the house for awhile. They took me to a bowling alley on the main drag. I wanted to be anywhere else. I sat on the side, with a pitcher of beer to myself.

Somewhere after my first few cups I decided it was time to step out for a cigarette. I sucked at bowling and knew it. I stepped outside into the cooling September air and reached into my pocket for my smokes. They weren’t there. “Damn,” I said aloud to nobody in particular. There was another pack in the truck, so I began to walk out to the parking lot. Alongside it was a girl fiddling with something in her trunk, cursing worse than some of the infantry guys I’d run with. I unlocked the door and she turned around a little startled.

“Didn’t mean to scare you. Just needed a smoke.” I told her. The lights in the parking lot were dim and flickering. All I could see was a slim shadow in the dark, and I was pretty sure she smiled. I inhaled a long drag off the Marlboro. “I didn’t even hear that much profanity from my drill sergeants. Need help with something?” She paused for a moment. “My name’s Paul, by the way.” I couldn’t see more that a vague shadow in the dark. She came to about my chin, and she looked thin enough. Probably white. She had dark hair tied back into a ponytail that stopped about her shoulder blades. In the dark, there was nothing more to see.

“Just having a bad night. My friends and I had a falling out. I’m trying to get out of here and relax, but my fishing lines are all tangled up. And I’m Amy. It’s nice to meet you, Paul.” Her voice was clear, and musical. Not too shy, not overbearing. She held out her hand and I shook it. Her grip was soft, but not limp. My hand dwarfed hers, and the contrast between the calloused, scarred hand I’d offered, and her soft, warm skin was striking.

“Going down to the river to hit into some stripers?” She nodded again.“I have an extra pole, if I can get it untangled. I saw you in there, I don’t think you like bowling too much.”
“That would be a very astute observation there Miss Amy.” I crushed out the butt of my smoke. “I have a few poles in the truck myself though. We can use them if yours are too far gone. I’ll meet you at the sea-wall jetty then? Right by the park.” I climbed into the cab as she pulled away, and followed her out onto route 9W, through the main drag of town, stopping for a six pack of Budweiser. Just down the hill from town was the Hudson River marina district and this time of year Striped Bass ran back down towards the ocean for the winter, on the tail end of their yearly spawning run. The fall return to the Atlantic was often better than the initial spring run, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to fish in over a year. I never did tell the guys that I’d left.

There was a bar across the street from the river, mostly for older folks, and guys with boats on the smaller marinas without their own clubs. I never went in there much, but it made parking convenient. I pulled in next to Amy’s little Jetta. My heavier vehicle sank slightly in the mud but I could get out no problem. I grabbed a pair of cheap Eagle Claw surf rods and stuck a can of beer in each of my jeans pockets. The rods were already rigged up. I stepped onto the jetty next to her, and we each hooked a bloodworm on, then cast out into the inky blackness of the river. I caught the sliver glisten of water droplets as the weight splashed through the surface of the water and sank down slow, then parked the rod between some rocks, sat down on the bench and waited.

It was a dark night. There was a tiny sliver of a waning moon, mostly shrouded in clouds. Across the river, some lights from the next county fought a loosing battle to be seen. Even the lights from the power plant across the way offered little illumination. Some small boat lights added a little definition to the black water. It seemed thick, like oil as the breakers hit the rocks a few feet below. The water seemed to pull at them and leave reluctantly, willing them to slip back, underneath the surface and sink to the depths. At night it always looked like the river could swallow you whole. For a long time it seemed that the water was calling me too. I felt like sinking into the unknown beneath the black slick. Somehow that night, it became less appealing. I wanted to feel the chilly breeze on my face and listen to the whistle of wind blowing through the guides of my rod. In fact, I needed it.

“Want a beer?’ She took the can I offered her and sipped slowly.
“Thanks. I wondered where you went. Are you going to be able to drive home?”
“If the bite’s any good I’ll be here awhile anyway. I can always sleep in the back of the truck if I have to.” As I said that, her rod suddenly bent double. The reel started buzzing as line played off. She set the can of beer down and reared back sharply. The rod began to bend and twist, she had a fish on, and a decent fighter at that. I watched for a few moments in admiration. She could handle the drag like a pro, and despite her thin frame, I didn’t see any signs of weakness as she fought him in. Then my rod began to arc wildly. “Looks like we might have hit into a school!” she yelled. I grabbed my rod and began to fight.

We caught four good keepers that night but let them all back. I didn’t trust the fish from the Hudson, no matter how many times they tried to clean it. I just liked to catch them. We moved back across the street when the bite slowed down and sat down on the tailgate of my truck. I lit a smoke and we opened up the last of the beers. We hadn’t talked a whole lot while we were fishing. I liked that, but I could sense the questions coming. We were both dappled in shadows. I felt like Amy could see right through me anyway.

“You don’t talk much. And you walk like you’re carrying a big weight on your shoulders.” I never expected her to be so blunt. I figured the least I could do was return the favor. I’ve been home from Mosul about a week,” I told her. “But not everyone made it home.” I saw her stiffen up a little bit, like she had just made an embarrassing mistake in a public place.
“That’s not your fault though. You know that right?” her voice had softened. She’d lost some of her initial confidence. It was a little patronizing too. Her tone reminded me of my mother, trying to tell me a nightmare wasn’t real. No matter what was said, it never made the fear you felt any less real.
“I was a medic, Amy. My job was to bring my boys home. They didn’t all come home. So that’s on me.” She didn’t say anything for a long moment. I’m not sure what she could have said. I came home certain that people had died because I wasn’t good enough. I knew that came through in my voice.

“Are you a religious man, Paul?” I shook my head.
“I used to be. I believe in God still, if that’s what you mean.”
“I know it’s cliché,” she started. “But sometimes there are things that are out of your control. You’re still here for a reason. So don’t let the war take you. It wasn’t supposed to.” She had a way with words, and I wanted to kiss her at that moment, but I didn’t. I needed to keep talking, and she seemed willing to listen.

“I killed people too, you know. They were trying to kill me. I didn’t really have a choice.” She nodded, and I kept going. I didn’t want to. I’d just met the girl. She didn’t even know my last name, and she was sitting there next to me, a slightly drunk, psychologically distraught veteran. Once I started talking about it, I found that I was unable to stop myself. “The thing is, I felt good about it. I didn’t feel bad at all. I’m not a psychopath, please don’t think-“ I stopped when she pulled me into her arms. I started sobbing openly. Once the floodgates had opened they were stuck for good. There was no holding back, no sanctity of manhood, or macho urge to keep from loosing it in front of a female. She just held me there in silence until it passed and we both fell asleep.

I woke up a few hours later as a drop of rain exploded on my face. It was still dark, and the cold blast caught me off guard. It took a moment or two to get my bearings and figure out where I was, and why there was a woman next to me. Then the rain came hard and fast, like a summer thunderstorm. Amy awoke with a start, and laughing, we ran through the deluge and into the crew cab of my truck. For the first time, in the soft illumination of the truck’s overhead lights, I could see the wonderful woman that would become my wife.

She had a clean, plain face. Pale skin, dotted with the occasional freckle. Her nose was small and gently curved. Her lips were thin, pink. They looked soft, not chapped. There were two pale blue stones, set in silver in each earlobe, standing out from brown hair that was probably much lighter when it was dry. Her eyes were dark, and deep. There was a mixture of emotion in them I found hard to read, and I was so lost in them for the moment that I almost missed it. There was a long, jagged scar curving up the right side of her neck and across her cheek. It looked a few years old, and she’d tried to cover it with wisps of hair, but they’d peeled away in the rain. I noticed it just as she reached a trembling, hand behind my neck and pressed her lips to mine.

She kissed me deeply, each tiny movement of her lips sent an electric feeling shooting through my body. I could feel our wet clothes sticking together as she pulled me closer to her on the bench, and shivered, half with cold, and half with excitement as she started to slide my hand up her thigh. Then I pulled away.
“I’m not sure this is right,” I told her. I watched her face twist in mild confusion, and noticed for the first time her inability to frown. Then her eyes flashed with anger, despite the curling of a smile on her lips.
“It’s the scar, isn’t it? This is the same reason I left the fucking bowling alley. I wouldn’t have guessed you’d be so shallow!” Her accusation hit me worse than if she’d slapped me. It was worse than being shot. I tried to play it down.
“I didn’t even notice…” She saw right through that in no time and called my bluff. I guess my eyes had lingered there just a little too long.

“Bullshit.” Something stopped her from leaving right then though, maybe curiosity, or maybe she believed me for a moment. I never asked. “What is it then?” That blunt, indelicate part of her showed up again.
“I’ve been pretty empty for awhile,” I told her. “I’m not really myself at all. Fact is, I’ve been with a couple women since I got back. And you’re the first one who’s ever made me feel like the bottom of the river isn’t a better place for me to be.” For a few moments she froze, and there was no sound but the raindrops smacking the roof and the windows, sending streams of cascading water all around. It was a lonely sound to me, creating a tension that I wasn’t sure I was ready for. She kissed me again, and lingered on my lips at the end. Her hand slid up my thigh , then withdrew quickly. She climbed out of the truck abruptly afterwards.

“Stay in touch, Paul.” I watched her drive away, then slid up to the drivers seat and watched the sun break through as the clouds drifted away and the rain eased off. My hand reached down to where she had placed a crumpled piece of notebook paper into my pocket. In small, neat form, was a phone number, and her full name: Amanda Reese. At the bottom she had written two words. “Stay Strong.”

I had since forgotten when she had gotten a chance to write that down, but I kept that paper with me always. I let her sleep on the kitchen floor and moved to the chair where my uniform shirt lay crumpled against the back of the chair where it had fallen. I reached into the front pocket for that crumpled piece of paper. “Stay Strong”, it said. Maybe I had a little bit of strength left in me now. But I was going to give her a normal life. She deserved that much. It felt like the easy way out to her, she didn’t want to force me to choose. I knew that it took more strength to give up the career I love for the woman I loved even more. She’d understand, given the time. I sat down at my laptop that morning to type up my resignation letter.