*Name has been changed
He has ink on his right arm. Near the shoulder. Some letters of a college fraternity he’d been in. Kappa Sig or Sigma Nu.
I’d never liked or even been with a man with a tattoo before, but after him I do.
He has blue eyes. They have this way of staring at you. Like no matter what you say, they aren’t going to get discouraged.
“I made reservations at Amerigo’s, just in case.”
I hate restaurants where they have to talk to you like you’re rich.
“Do you want to just get some sandwiches instead,” I ask back. We’re in his white jeep with the top down. “Go to the park?”
We go by Jason’s Deli. They have free ice cream. I didn’t know they had free ice cream.
He’s thrown the football at my hands. I figured he’d go easy on me. Him being a man and in the army and all.
Fuck that. I throw the football back at him hard. But my hard is not his hard, and I’m sure what I think is his hard is probably his medium or even medium-soft.
He smiles at me with those goddamn blue eyes.
“You wanna come up?”
The four most worn-out words in the English language fall out of my mouth.
“We don’t have to…”
He’s putting his boots back on.
And he does.
He tells me, as we’re lying there in the dark with my white comforter pulled up near our faces, what he’s been doing for the past fourteen months in the desert. Says he wakes up in the middle of the night shaking sometimes. I hope he does tonight so I can feel it in his body; feel that pain and help him somehow.
I tell him about my brother. How I know he’s got all of that in him from his time in, but he won’t talk about it.
We don’t sleep much that night.
“Don’t call me.”
I say it in the morning as I’m headed to work and he’s headed to Ft. Bragg.
And he doesn’t.
I call him a couple days later.
“I was going to call you regardless,” he tells me. I know. But I didn’t want to wait.
“Can I see you before you go to Germany,” he asks.
“You know when you’re no longer here and in his life, I’m still going to be?”
His army buddy with the blonde cropped hair and snarled eyes barks at me.
He’s joking of course. We’re all playing cards and it’s all good fun. But he’s right and I know it.
“I know,” I say surprisingly calm, knowingly. His friend looks just as surprised at my response.
I know I will not win this tug-of-war that is the army.
I send him a postcard when I’m in Germany. It’s a picture of a monument in the country. A warrior of some sort.
You would like it here, I write. I really hope you get to visit sometime.
I hate the idea of a man paying for me to fly somewhere—I have my own money. But at the same time, it’s the most incredible feeling of free: someone else besides me is taking care of me.
He picks me up from the airport. I throw my arms around his shoulders. He downplays it.
“That was my commanding officer there at the airport.”
I smirk a little inside. I would have given the commanding officer a hug, too. Chatted him up for a good ten minutes. Told him how excited I was to be giving his favorite officer a…
“This is Fayette-nam.”
“I think it’s really nice.”
He looks at me.
“Well, you don’t live here.”
Still, in my mind as we drive by the strip malls and payday advance shops, I can’t help but think how it’s really not that bad of a place. He’s here.
The next day we wake up late and load in his jeep.
“I actually haven’t made it down to the beach since I’ve been here.”
“What?? You live like two hours away; not even!! Holy cows! I can’t believe that. Well! I’m glad I came up so we could go.”
We head towards Wilmington. I make it point to pay for my own Propel water when we stop at a gas station. He’s already paid for my plane ticket. He’s not paying for my water. His eyes look at me when I do this, but he says nothing. He would have paid.
We end up at the beach. Lay there. I beg him to come in the water with me; he laughs and refuses; it’s too cold. It starts lighting. He says we need to go. I beg him to stay—let’s go play in the water. He says no, calmly. We leave.
We’re different, he and I.
But together, we hold a balance that defies any sea-saw I’ve ever been on.
“You know when you’re no longer here and in his life, I’m still going to be?”
His army buddy with the snarled eyes is barking at me.
“Hey Miller*, your girlfriend is getting a little crazy over here.”
His buddy smiles at me.
Later on that evening, it’s just me and him. I’m sitting on the kitchen counter, hands around his neck.
“Your friend called me your girlfriend.”
He smiles at me.
I throw back my head back and laugh and back-teeth grin.
I get on a plane the next day and head back to Nashville.
“I’ll see you soon.”
He’s coming to visit me in Tennessee.
“What are we doing?”
I’ve never been one for subtleties with this kind of stuff.
“I don’t know,” he says into the phone.
There’s the slightest pause that I’m not sure is even a pause. He continues.
“I said I didn’t want to get in any kind of serious relationship while I was in.”
And that’s all I say.
We say goodbye that October night. He in Carolina. Me in Tennessee.
We never see each other again.
Years go by. I’m moving to Texas. I send him an message.
I fell in love with you. I was scared. I’m sorry.
Two years go by. Right before Christmas, I get a reply back:
You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m sorry for how things ended. I’m staying in the army. Moving to Germany.
“You have to be able to communicate.”
She’s strong. Sitting across from me at Ft. Campbell.
Her husband is to the left. He’ll be deploying this spring. His third time.
And I sit there and talk to her for the article I’m writing. I hear the strength in her voice. The calmness in her eyes as their two little ones run around by her feet. The steadiness in her being.
And I get in my car and head back to Nashville.
And for the first time, I know.
For nearly six years I’ve wondered. Had many relationships with many men—even fell for a woman once. But his face and his chest and his eyes are the ones that always stay with me when I close mine.
Because now I know.
And six years after I’ve said goodbye to a relationship that has continued to haunt every thread of every bit of my insides, with the only conclusion being I hope I stop feeling at some point, I weep uncontrollably as I drive down I-24.
And finally come to peace that I could never have been the person he needed me to be.
I did learn from the relationship.
He says that in the message sent before he left for Germany.
Which hits me.
I’d never thought about it that way before.
Makes me wonder, what did I learn from the relationship?
I’ve had years to think about it now, and what’s done is done.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from relationships that are no longer, is that you can never recreate the past. Even if you run into that person again. Even if your paths do cross again. Time and you both have moved on.
But what I did learn from the relationship is that I loved him. And when I realized that I loved him, I was scared of how things would end, so I didn’t want to continue on with the relationship.
I hurt myself more by not trying than if I’d tried.
Love is strange.
To quote the country singer David Nail, “Never quite the same way does it start”, and it’s so true. Love is scary and it’s exciting and it’s lovely and it’s petrifying and it is the best and worst thing that could ever happen to you because at the end of the day, you don’t know how it’s going to end.
But nobody does.
When I was little, I’d curl up in my maroon cloth chair by the upstairs window. It overlooked a tree I wondered about climbing out onto. I’d spend hours reading books in that chair: Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. A Wrinkle in Time series.
I loved nothing more than my books and my characters in those books. But sometimes, a few chapters in, I’d get scared. Because my characters started to face danger. I’d get so nervous trying to keep going on with the story, that I couldn’t keep reading. So finally, I’d flip to the back of the book and read the last few pages. Make sure they all made it out okay and were safe.
There was always a temporary sigh of relief when I did this.
But it took the thrill out of reading at the same time.
The times I did resist.
Hung in there when I didn’t know how things ended until I actually got to the end of the book.
Those were the best times.
So what did I learn?
Don’t read ahead. Don’t end things before they’re supposed to end. And if something doesn’t make sense and you can’t see how it could possibly end well?
I say fuck it.
Keep reading anyway.
Twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do then by the things you did. So throw of your bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
-H. Jackson Brown