I set my desert camouflaged assault pack in the trunk of her red Dodge Stratus, and slammed it shut. I still hadn’t gotten used to how lightweight a vehicle could be when it wasn’t covered in armor. I looked down at the yellow ribbon magnet.
Support the Troops.
It felt like a cruel joke; like the magnet was only there to remind me of everything I had lost. I wanted to believe she fought her hardest for us while I was away fighting the war, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like it.
Two weeks went by fast, but at times, I wished they went by a lot faster. Minnesota was supposed to be my home, and all the faces around me were supposed to be my friends and family, but my real family was still in Iraq running missions everyday. I had to drop them an email every few days to make sure everyone was okay; then I could relax and go back to trying to enjoy my leave.
It felt good to put on blue jeans, grow a few days’ stubble, and go through the motions of being like everyone else for a little while. The façade always wore thin pretty quickly though, at least for me. The weathered desert boots and digitally camouflaged fatigues certainly weren’t as comfortable as fitted jeans and skate shoes, but they felt more right.
I climbed into the backseat. Michelle was sitting next to me, wearing a grey sweatshirt I used to work out in. It became her pajama top while I was away; it was really baggy on her, but she said it made it smell like I was curled up next to her as she slept.
My fragrance had faded in the thirteen months I’d been gone. The last time I saw her was seven months ago during a four-day pre-war pass in Mississippi. When I dropped her off at the airport, I hoped to milk our last goodbye as long as possible before she got on the plane. Her flight was canceled due to weather, though, and we had to sprint to get her on the last flight bound for the Twin Cities. After the rushing, and a hasty kiss goodbye, I found myself standing in the terminal with only the taste of her watermelon lip gloss before it even hit me that she was gone.
Then I went to Iraq. Like everything else it touched, the war changed us for the worse. I was angry and distrustful, and I hated the locals more every time our convoy was attacked. She felt lonely and unappreciated, and her hate was focused on the same sinking feeling I’d gotten a taste of over leave—sitting at home, helpless, while someone she loved was doing a dangerous job on the other side of the world. By the time I dropped my assault pack on the terminal floor and hugged her, it felt like my arms were wrapped around a memory.
We held hands, and leaned our heads on one another as the car started moving. My hand brushed over bare skin where there used to be an engagement ring. Her tan line was the only proof it was there in the first place.
Like any time I went away on Army business, I was dead tired. We never slept the night before a goodbye; it would be a waste of the few precious hours we had left together. I had all day to catch up on sleep flying over the Atlantic.
Her stepfather drove. Michelle wasn’t up for dealing with Twin Cites traffic after a sleepless night and a painful goodbye. As he drove, landmarks which meant so much to me over the past four years passed me by: the street corner with the broken clock where we first met; the beach volleyball court where we became friends; the county fair Ferris wheel where we fell in love.
My mind lingered on the Fort Benning parade field.
I stood perfectly still in a formation of hundreds. My Class B dress uniform was pressed and sharp, shoes and medals polished. A summer under the Georgia sun had tanned my skin, and my body was rock-hard from rigorous training. My eyes darted in search of her.
The bleachers were packed with cheering loved ones there to see us become soldiers, and I scanned the red, white and blue spangled crowd. I looked for the white dress.
The moment I found her, I forgot how to breathe. Her bleach-blonde hair was straightened, and her slim body was wrapped in white. She sat next to my mom and little brother. It had been three months since I’d seen Michelle, and with the rare exception of a fifteen-minute phone call, letters had been our only mode of correspondence. To see her beauty in the flesh tested every kernel of discipline the Army had instilled in me. All I wanted to do was break ranks and rush to her in the bleachers. I forced myself to breathe. We had a formation to finish.
I moved with machine-like precision from one drill-and-ceremony position to the next. Parade rest. Attention. Present arms. Order arms. My movements were flawless, repeated thousands of times until they became muscle memory. This time was special, though. I wasn’t executing these maneuvers for an overbearing drill sergeant; I was performing them for Michelle.
When the formation was dismissed, I didn’t run to her. I walked with measured steps, watching her through the chaos of families and soldiers reuniting. She was searching for me. When her hazel eyes met mine, both of us froze. The closed-mouth smile I spent all summer dreaming of appeared on her face. It felt like we were on the Ferris wheel all over again; watching the carnival grow smaller as we went up; the wet bench across from us giving us no choice but to share a seat; the slow intertwining of our fingers. I wished the ride would have gotten stuck at the top so we could sit up there forever.
I hugged my mom first—which I’m pretty sure is a rule—but even as she squeezed the life out of her baby boy, my stare never broke from Michelle’s.
She had written about the white dress in her letters, and when I needed to stay awake on guard duty, I imagined what it would look like on her. I even asked if she could send me a picture of her wearing it, and guilt tripped her about how much motivation the picture would give me to train, but she held firm because she didn’t want to ruin the surprise. To say this was worth the wait wouldn’t do it justice; Venus Herself would have been put to shame standing next to her.
I stepped in, and grabbed her just above the waist. I extended my arms to hold her high as I spun her around. Her golden threads of hair glistened in the sun. She was so happy that her mouth opened to reveal the barely-perceptible overbite she got so self-conscious about. Her heels clicked on the pavement as I set her down. I pecked her softly on the cheek, and whispered, “I love you,” in her ear before kissing her lips.
After a summer training in the hellish heat and humidity of the Deep South, the moment was as close to heaven as I had ever known. Her watermelon lip gloss tasted like ambrosia.
The honeymoon of our reunion lasted three weeks. Our ride was stuck at the top; we were more in love than ever. Every morning I woke up and saw her lying next to me, it felt like everything in my world was perfect.
Then my mother committed suicide.
None of us saw the signs. Michelle’s soft touch and warm shoulder to bawl into were the only things that got me through some of those nights; they were the only things that made sense anymore. The woman who meant everything to me since the beginning was ripped from my life without warning and left me with nothing but questions that have no answers, but not before I was blessed with another woman who loved me.
From then on, the highs seemed higher and the lows lower. Every landmark was loaded with meaning: the church parking lot where I told her I was going to Iraq; the apartment where I asked her to be my wife; the North Dakota farmhouse where I told my family she said yes; the furniture warehouse turned wrestling arena where she watched a boy catch his dream; the beach on the Gulf of Mexico where we watched the waves crash under the stars, knowing a tidal wave was just days from crashing over both of our lives.
Once I reached Iraq, everything was different. We weren’t just apart; we lived in separate worlds. I drove down roads where IEDs were commonplace, and watched vehicles crewed by my best friends disappear in clouds of fire and shrapnel. Death was more than a possibility; it had already become reality for more than 3,000 US soldiers who came before me, and it hung in the air everywhere I went. Fear and sorrow burdened me more than a bulletproof vest ever could.
There’s really no way to tell a college girl waiting for you to come home all of that, though. I could bitch about the heat, or whichever one of my platoon-mates was getting on my nerves that day, but I wasn’t going to talk about the bombs we were finding, or what it feels like to shoot at people, or the acid-churning feeling in the gut that comes from rolling through a city where I knew at least one of the faces in the crowd was working toward killing me.
Sometimes a call home was just what I needed. It could feel like the war was stripping away my soul and making me as ugly as my environment. Nothing brought me back to humanity faster than hearing Michelle say she loves me. It could also be refreshing to hear someone complain about normal-person problems, like studying for exams or waiting in line at the DMV. It made me look forward to having normal-person problems of my own.
Other times, a call home only added to the pain. Nothing was as helpless as waiting all week for a phone call, and having it turn into a fight about me not being home, or worse, hearing Michelle cry while I sat two continents and an ocean away.
It was stressful, but I could at least shelter her from the realities of combat life. The less she knew, the better she slept at night; and that was one less thing for me to worry about. We could do our best to pretend it was just another separation—like basic training or her class trip to Europe.
That façade was blasted away on a cloudless August morning.
I swung the plywood door of the phone center open with my left hand. My right arm was bandaged, and I still had soot on my face. The phones had been shut down for four hours while they waited for me to get a call out. The Army didn’t want this news reaching home from any lips but mine.
Two other soldiers had to make the same call, but they had both been released from the hospital and gotten a hold of someone. It was 1100 local time, making it 2 AM back home.
I tried her cell first. She always slept with her phone on the nightstand, in case I needed to call at odd hours.
I got her voicemail, and hung up.
This wasn’t the sort of news to leave in a message.
I tried the house phone. It rang four times before the machine picked up. I started thinking I wasn’t going to reach her.
Beep. “Michelle? Michelle? Hey babe, if you’re there, pick up.”
A thumbs-up with my good arm let the soldier working the desk know she could re-open the phone center.
“I just want you to know I’m okay.” I barely finished my sentence before the emotion reached my voice. I was wholly unprepared to make this call.
“What happened?” I could tell by her voice she knew bad news was coming.
“My truck got hit by an IED.” It was all I was able to say. Just speaking the letters was making the explosion replay, and I had to fight off the panic which was setting in. I took a few calming breaths, and pushed through. I wanted to keep the information flowing so she wasn’t picturing me short a limb or laid out in some burn ward. “I’m fine though…just dinged up. I’m just…I’m just shook up still.”
“Oh my God,” there was a few seconds’ pause that felt a lot longer. “You’re okay, though?”
“Yeah, just a few scratches on my arm.” That’s a nice way of saying some Navy doctor just pulled two pieces of shrapnel out of my forearm.
“Okay…is everyone else alright?” She knew how much the men I served with meant to me. Losing one of them would be worse than losing a limb.
“Yeah, pretty much. Gerry was gunning. He’s just fine; he practically fucking skipped out of the hospital! I think Kingsley broke his leg, but all of us made it out alright.”
“Wow…there’s like no way I’m going to be able to sleep now.”
“I’m sorry.” Wait, did I just—
“Don’t be sorry, geez!” We both started laughing. I couldn’t even think straight. “Listen to me, Paul…I love you.”
I spent all morning in disbelief as my humvee ride turned into a disaster site, then a medevac in a helicopter, then a hospital bed, then a phone center. When she said those three words, it was the first time I felt safe all day.
I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.
I told her about the shrapnel a few days later. I didn’t want to slam her with all the details right away, especially since they were so recently burnt into my own mind. I didn’t tell her that I felt certain I was going to die when my door jammed shut and I was trapped in the burning humvee; that engine debris showered down more than a hundred yards from the blast; that I was vomiting black from all the smoke I had inhaled. Those were the facts of my world, not hers.
I could have went on telling myself the necessary lies and ignoring the gravity of what happened so I could keep doing it everyday, but calling Michelle made it all terribly real.
After that, there was no pretending the war couldn’t kill me. I wasn’t just away from home in an uncomfortable place; I was at war, and there were real people with very real weapons trying to kill me. She never talked about it, but it must have run through her mind that those intentions ran both ways.
The Army gave me two weeks off missions before I went back out.
“How’d the run go?”
“I was kinda nervous. It was hard getting back behind the wheel again, but I had a good crew, and it started feeling pretty natural again after a while.”
“It went well then?” Michelle normally wasn’t so interested in my missions, but after how the last one ended, I thought I understood her extra concern.
It was actually a gruesome run. We found three dead bodies hanging from an overpass, and I cut one of them down before I helped bag them and load them onto a flatbed.
“Yeah, just another run,” I lied. “How was your weekend?”
With how heavy the phone calls had been since the IED, I couldn’t imagine what Michelle would think if I told her about the bodies. Maybe when the war was over, I could sit her down and fill in the blanks.
“There’s something I need to tell you.” My stomach dropped. I braced for the worst.
“Alright, go for it.”
“I need you to promise me you won’t hang up right away.”
“That bad, huh? …Alright, I promise I won’t hang up.”
“You know my friend Eric, from class? He came over to watch a movie.”
“Okay…” Please, please, please let that be the end of her news.
“And we kissed.” Those three words sounded worse than a corpse crashing to the asphalt.
I’m losing her. I’m losing her. I’m seven thousand miles away in a fucking war-zone (Paul?), and I’m losing the one good thing I have left (Paul?). I hate this country. I hate this country. I hate this goddamn-miserable-fucking country!
“Paul, can you please say something?”
“Fuck …umm …I don’t know what the fuck to say. Was this like, an accident, or are you and him… fuck!”
“Would you hate me if I said I didn’t know?”
“You know I could never hate you, babe.”
“I love you, Paul.” She said between sobs. “I’m so sorry. You don’t deserve any of this. It’s just so damn hard. You’ve been gone so long, and things have been so scary lately. I don’t even know if…”
If I’m coming home. I thought about the lifeless eyes I stared into a couple days ago before I zipped up the black bag.
“I know what you mean.”
After Michelle told me about the kiss, the war became my escape from home. I could put on my armor, load my weapons, and spend three or four days on a convoy—far away from the phone center. As crazy as my last two runs had been, Iraq made a lot more sense than home. We both said we wanted to make it work, but she was torn between feelings for me and the college boy, and my trust in her had dropped to zero. My leave was only a month away.
I went on two convoys without any incidents. With leave getting closer, I started finding hope that we would be able to put the pieces back together. I could fly home, take a couple weeks to recharge the battery for the rest of the war, and the moment Michelle and I were in the same room together, all of our confused feelings would sort themselves out.
I was on the second day of the third run since finding the bodies when the call came over the radio that Charlie Co. had two KIA (Killed in Action). I remember I was gunning for Sergeant Thomas that mission, and all either of us could say was, “Goddamn.” We had already sent guys home with crippling injuries, but this was our battalion’s first loss of life.
We finished the run two days later, and the phones were shut down for another day so the Army could inform the families of the fallen. Then we gave the Charlie guys a day to call home before we used the phone center. When I was able to get down there again, there was a long line for the phones, so I jumped on the Internet.
I had an email from Michelle with the subject line: Please don’t hate me.
It was an apology for having sex with Eric, sent on the same day as the Charlie guys were killed. It felt like her and the war were in cahoots to time everything to keep kicking me while I was down.
Against my better judgment, I kept calling her between runs. Leave was only two weeks away. If I could hold it together until then, I could fix everything. Every time I dialed her number, it felt like I was getting back behind the steering wheel after the blast. I gained some headway with my persistence; she agreed not to see Eric again, at least until my leave was over. We could figure out where to go from there. I knew I was selling myself short by trying to make it work after she cheated on me—even her friends were telling me I deserved better—but letting her hurt me made more sense than imagining a life without her.
When I finally stepped off the plane in late October, seeing her didn’t take my breath away. I wasn’t a proud young soldier in Class Bs, and she wasn’t my beauty in a white dress. Those starry-eyed lovers died half a world apart.
We still cared so much about each other, and our old love would come back in fits of passion, but neither of us had enough left in our hearts to offer anything that would hold us together for another half a year of war.
I was at the bar half the nights I was home, and she wasn’t always around when I came back. I didn’t even bother asking.
After passing every landmark, we reached our final destination: Hubert H. Humphrey Airport. It felt like I was getting ready to fly home.
Her stepfather grabbed my assault pack for me, and wished me well with a firm handshake. He used to be a soldier himself, so he understood some of what I was going through with his stepdaughter.
I set my bag down, and wrapped my arms around Michelle. There would be no spinning, no love-struck smiles, no white dress. This wasn’t a homecoming, or even just another goodbye.
This was the end.
Our lips shared one final kiss; she wasn’t wearing any lip gloss. My senses were heightened as I tried to cling to the feel and taste of her for the long months ahead, but I’d done enough goodbyes to know it would fade with time.
It seems everything does.
“I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you, too,” she whispered back.
The silent D’s were resounding.
I shouldered my assault pack, and marched toward the sliding entrance doors. All my training told me not to look back, to keep my eyes forward and focused on the war still left to fight.
I looked back.
I saw her standing by the curb in my old grey sweatshirt; no sun hit her face, but she was as beautiful as ever. If I squinted just right, it almost looked like she was waiting for me to come home.
More in the Paul Van Dyke Micro-Collection:
Between Her World and Mine
Front page image by Roman Henn.