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I tug at the rubber band holding tight to my right wrist. It’s already red and stinging from the past nights thoughts of him. I think it’ll stay sore for another year or so, at least. Not from the rubber bands, but the scars that refuse to heal.
It’s only been eleven and a half months. Eleven and a half cold months. I held nightly conversations with my conscience, explaining to myself how he could come back any day now. I used to keep a pathetic excuse written in the back of mind, that he’s just hiding. On vacation in Europe or something. I put faith in the thought that this is one sick and twisted joke. My name is Rory Panettiere, and there was a time I could’ve sworn to you-- Courtney McNeal is not dead.
The last time I checked I was 28 years of age, living in collegiate Berkeley, California. I was married for four years to the most wonderful man you could ever imagine. His name is Courtney, yes he’s a man. I’ve got the pictures to prove it, but that’s another story.
About three years ago Courtney enlisted in the United States Army. I wasn’t going to hold him back from his dreams—it wasn’t my place. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit by and watch him throw his life away. At least; I didn’t want to. But he wouldn’t listen, he never listens.
Flirtatious dancing and downright suggestive behavior didn’t make a dent in his mind the morning of December 2nd, 2004. The morning he left to meet with his recruiter. Part of me was worried that this guy had spent 3 years in Iraq perfecting his ass, only to return to the states and steal my Courtney. The other part of me was scared genuinely shitless that he returned to have my Courtney sign his life away to a country who didn’t even support our commitment to one another.
The same country who decided it was completely fair to take our daughter from us and give it to a “better suited” couple. Granite we got her back, but without Ashleigh I don’t know if I’d have the strength to wake up every morning. I still don’t know exactly how to explain it to her. She’s not even three.
Anyway, in August of 2005 Country received his papers. He was due to depart America for Iraq in three weeks. On September 3rd. Ashleigh would be starting a new daycare the next day, and Daddy would be on his way to war the day before that. Of course she just thought he was at “work”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her he was out “fighting the bad guys.” And I still don’t have the heart to tell her Daddy isn’t coming home.
Two months after he shipped out I received a letter from Courtney. He had arrived, and the first week wasn’t too bad. He bragged about his teammates or whatever the hell it is they call it. One’s name was Darius; he was from southern Georgia and had never met a “real live homosexual.” He promised he wasn’t in any danger, Darius could keep a secret. He told me one of his roommates on base, soldier AJ876 had a particular interest in a photo of Ashleigh & I he kept beneath his pillow. Courtney would tell people I was his brother, and the little girl was his niece. I’m sure they were none the wiser.
I slept easy that night. Extremely easy…maybe even too easy. I imagined greeting him at LAX with Ashleigh, hair to her shoulders, flowing and shimmering chocolate locks. Hugging him, smelling him, feeling him. My shiny new soldier. I cried in my sleep, I’d never been so excited for anything my entire life. Of course I had no idea when he’d be returning home. The thought never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t.
On December 2nd 2006, I received another special delivery letter, I assumed it was from Courtney and rushed Ashleigh out of her cute little parka and into the family room to read it aloud to her. I unfolded the letter slowly, seeing it wasn’t handwritten, I figured it’d been transcribed. I focused more on the words and realized it wasn’t from Courtney at all.
It was from his commanding officer, informing me that Courtney suffered a panic attack in battle. Shortly after Courtney was shot in the head four times. The image of Courtney staring a bleak dusty sky in the deserts of Iraq seared my mind. I wasn’t reading aloud. I wasn’t…I wasn’t alive. The paper fell from my hands to the ground lighter than a feather. My two year old daughter staring at me in curiosity.
“What did Daddy say?” she struggled to say. She frowned and tugged at my sweater, “What’s wrong Rory? Is Daddy okay? He not sick is he?” she began to cry “OH NO!” she mimicked her idol, Dora the Explorer. I laughed in that moment.
Ashleigh tried her damndest to convince me her friend Isabella was actually Dora the Explorer with longer hair. I explained to her Dora was a character on television, and Isabelle was her classmate. Dora doesn’t exist in the real world. And it hit me. The Courtney that letter spoke of WASN’T my Courtney. It was a fiction Courtney. Someone else’s Courtney.
Because Courtney wouldn’t leave me without saying goodbye. He wouldn’t leave Ashleigh. I felt bad thinking of the embarrassment the government must feel, what a silly mistake. I’d have to arrange to call his local correspondents and alert them of the error.
But that would have to wait; there was a knock at the door. It was the recruiter, from December of last year. Come to think of it, it was exactly one year ago when Courtney enlisted. I answered the door beaming, letter in stead. His face stood solemn, frozen as if in deep thought, lines of remorse and pity disgraced his perfect proportioned face, framed with sandy blonde hair and the most gorgeous turquoise eyes I’d ever seen. That US Army sure knows how to pick ‘em.
I invite him in, to learn his name is Lee, Lee Aldridge and bring him to the family room to meet Ashleigh. I introduce her as Courtney and I’s son, I figured Courtney had told him the truth. Lee nodded and kissed her hand. He looked to me and didn’t speak.
“How rude of me, I haven’t offered you any sort of refreshment, would you like some tea?” I said sheepishly. He raised an eyebrow in confusion, “I hardly think that’s appropriate, Mr.-“he paused.
“Mr. McNeal.” I finished for him.
“Right, Mr. McNeal, are you aware of the situation? Have you received the letter?”
I laughed and handed to him, “What a silly mistake, hm? They must be embarrassed out of their minds.”
He looked from my face to the paper, trying to find the humor in the situation, “Mr. McNeal this is not a joke. This letter is real, and it’s accurate. I’m sorry.”
Tears threatened to reveal themselves in the corners of my eyes, “You must be mistaken. Courtney isn’t-“I couldn’t speak the word, “He’s fine. Do you have any timeframe of when we can expect him back home?”
“The Government may take awhile to release the rema-, your husband. In the meantime there are legalities I’m sure you understand. Whenever you feel comfortable, you can stop by our office.” He handed me a card, “We can’t begin transportation until you’ve completed the paper work, and made arrangements.”
I stared at the card, and took it from his hand. All of a sudden it became so real, so painful. I asked Lee to excuse me and took Ashleigh next door to the Hughes family for a play date I’d scheduled ages ago. I asked them to excuse me while I handled something. I sat back down next to Lee, quiet.
“If you’d like some time alone-“Lee stood up. I grabbed his hand.
He sat and didn’t retract his hand, he squeezed it and brushed a thumb across it, “I am so, so sorry.”
A tear ran down my cheek, and I bit my lip to refrain from crying.
Lee reached over and removed the tear, “Don’t cry. Nobody as beautiful as you should ever cry.” He soothed.
I looked at him and melted. Tear after tear flowed down my face as I found myself wailing into his nice pressed green uniform. I held on to him for dear life, as if he was the last piece of driftwood, and I was stuck at sea, not sure if I’d ever be rescued.
He rubbed my back and held me, whispering softly to calm me down. I explained how Courtney can’t leave. He won’t leave. And that he’ll be back, and there was a mix up. Lee didn’t speak, he only held tighter.
We stayed like that for at least an hour, it was dark by now, and I’m sure Alison Hughes didn’t might overtime with Ashleigh, not that I was particularly concerned. I knew Ash was safe, which was more than I could say for her father.
I layed cradled by the handsome stranger who came to confirm that my husband was dead. He smelled of Versace for men. An almost Apple scent. He had a strong grip, and a safe aurora. He told me about his girlfriend, and how he’s afraid to marry her, but I didn’t question his motives. I didn’t question why he held so tight, or why he felt the need to assure me he’d never let go.
“It’s getting late, do you want me to go?” He asked stroking my hair.
I thought for a second, through my air dried tears and swollen vocal cords. I didn’t respond verbally, I nestled more into his embrace and slept. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that, but I know when I woke up he was there, Ashleigh in arms. She was changed, and had eaten breakfast, the television was on and turned to Pinky Dinky Do, her newest favorite program, and they sat cuddled up on the floor, Lee in grey t-shirt and a pair of Courtney’s jeans.
He saw me wake, “Rory! Good morning, I um,” He looked down to the jeans he was wearing, “Hope you don’t mind.”
I smiled groggily almost forgetting who Lee was, and why he was here. I didn’t mind. Lee told me he had to go, and he’d have to come up with a good enough excuse for his girlfriend. He went upstairs to change into his uniform, and came back down to say goodbye. He hugged Ashleigh tight who’d taken quite a liking to him, and kissed me gently on the cheek.
“So, is this it? Is this goodbye?” I asked like a nervous child.
He smiled and kissed me chastely on the lips, “Of course not.”
In the following months, Courtney’s body was returned, and a memorial service held. I explained the situation to Ashleigh who didn’t fully understand, but had an easier time thanks to a little outside guidance.
Lee attended the funeral, alone. He never did propose to his girlfriend, he never really got the chance to when he dumped her for more “fulfilling promises.”
He moved in about three months ago with Ashleigh and me, vowing to help me raise her, and be everything Courtney was and more, but never having the intention to replace him. He understood that there’d always be a spot in my heart for him, and though Ashleigh may not remember much of him, it’s still his blood that runs through her veins, not mine. And she’s about all I’ve got left of him.
Tonight I sit up, wondering, thinking, and just being. I pop my rubber bands as silently as possible; it’s a coping mechanism my therapist introduced me to. Ashleigh’s sound asleep down the hall, excited for her fourth birthday, only a few weeks away!
Lee’s snoring next to me, probably dreaming of some crazy memories of hazing at the university, I hover over him, looking at the man I now claim to love. I’ve been married once and I really do hope to do it again someday. And I really do see it being with Lee. But for now I’m not sure if I’m ready to let go. I’m still married to Courtney somewhere in my heart. My name is Rory Panettiere, and sometimes I’m able to swear to you—Courtney McNeal is not dead.