Soldier returns, but Afghanistan stays between them
I’m watching an unfamiliar man pace my room, sweat dripping from his scarred neck. He tells me I’m in danger. I’d been in a minor car accident, and he believes I may have suffered permanent injury.
“You need an MRI,” he urges.
“But I feel fine and my X-rays were normal,” I insist.
“Injuries don’t show up right away. You could have traumatic brain injury. You can’t just assume everything is OK.”
His agitation grows. I know this man, but I’ve never seen him like this. His years serving as an Air Force captain in Afghanistan are bearing down on him — and on us. I don’t know if I can stay with someone this afraid. Especially because we’re not in Afghanistan, we’re in L.A. And we’re safe here.
During the first Gulf War, the post office still took mail addressed to “Any Service Person in Iraq.” I wrote a letter for my ninth-grade civics class and soon heard back from Roland, a soldier stationed in the desert. We corresponded a few times, then the war ended and we lost touch. But his words stuck with me. He told me my letters were the only mail he had received.
Almost 20 years later, I wrote another letter to a serviceman, and it found its way to Chris, who wrote back from Afghanistan. We started emailing. I scrutinized his words like I’d read a Wilfred Owen poem, searching for the reality of the war.
But Chris’ emails were friendly and light. He described the training of Afghan police officers. I complained about L.A. traffic. Our correspondence gained a rhythm, and as its frequency increased, romance crept in. I sent him a picture, and he compared me to an angel, then explained that he did not want to have premarital sex. He wasn’t religious, so it seemed like a sweet thing to say.
One day Chris told me he was being reassigned to the base in El Segundo. We had been writing for months and knew each other’s dreams, doubts and stories — at least the ones we chose to tell. Now I let myself imagine more: strong arms engulfing me and a deep, gentle voice humbly describing his heroic deeds.
Chris and I met on a Saturday morning in early June, in the Middle East section of the Santa Monica Public Library. He was thinner than he looked in his pictures, with dark circles under his eyes. At 32, he walked with a hunch and a slight drag. We hugged awkwardly, and I was surprised by how frail he felt in my arms.
We walked around Santa Monica that whole day, stopping at various “stations” he had planned — a magic show, a jazz concert, a ride on the Ferris wheel. He kept checking his watch to make sure we weren’t late for the next activity.
We talked about our childhoods, the Holocaust, our abhorrence of convertibles. We drank tea in a Zen garden and contemplated crashing a bar mitzvah party at the carousel on the pier. When we ended the evening at Britannia Pub, he slouched into our booth. It had been a long day, but Chris wasn’t just tired; he was haggard.
After our intense emails, I felt like I had to keep seeing him. And as I hoped, his dark circles gradually disappeared, and he gained enough weight to resemble a soldier again. We spent long summer days exploring Southern California’s beaches, canyons and comedy clubs. We made each other dinner, walked my dog and finally had premarital sex. When he wrapped his arms around me, I felt more like a life raft than a lover, and part of me enjoyed that heroism.
But as Chris grew physically robust, his mind deteriorated. Strangers terrified him. He would flinch at loud noises, and he lived in constant fear of being arrested for some pretextual infraction. He feared for me too. Did my fender bender permanently damage my brain? Was the FBI going to investigate me for insurance fraud if my MRI was normal? What if the other driver sued me even though it was her fault?
Chris’ paranoia was protective but infuriating. I told him to stop talking about the accident. He couldn’t. As he paced my room, veins formed a map of blue estuaries on his pale scalp. I begged him to seek treatment. He refused.
“Crazy people don’t get promoted in the military,” he said.
I told him he wasn’t crazy.
“You’re traumatized from the war and you need help.”
He cried. He said he knew. But he did nothing.
I re-read Chris’ old emails, trying to remember his strength. He had lived under constant fire, wearing armored vests as casually as he wore flip-flops now. But he trembled every time a pot clanged or a door thudded.
At the end of the summer, exhausted and disillusioned, I told Chris I couldn’t stay with him. He didn’t need to ask why. We said goodbye on a cold August night. His sobs shook my body.
Chris left L.A. soon after that, and I missed him more than I ever thought possible. I hated myself for leaving him. I had abandoned a war veteran while I judged our government for doing the same. I wanted to save him. But ultimately, I didn’t want him in my life.
Four years later, I still get cards from Chris, on Christmas and my birthday. I don’t know where he is. The cards are generic, pre-printed, with pictures of him looking confident and upright — the soldier I had once imagined. There is no return address, so I don’t write back.
Green is a commercial litigator living in Silver Lake.
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