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The journey to his house was quiet -- too quiet for anybody’s liking, but it was what it was. We rode in a automobile which excited my friend besides me, however she kept it to herself. We were all thinking of him.
He didn’t have a name, or much of an identity. What remained was bits of his soul, the pieces that hadn’t been blown up in the foreign land, along with his dog tag. Whenever we mentioned him, which was a rare occasion even for me, he was called “he”. We all knew who “he” was, but we stubbornly refused to say his name. I argued it was out of respect. Thinking back to it now, he was probably embarrassed by our code name and persona we made up for him, however it seemed fitting. We’d never knowingly tamper with him and the residue of his sanity, but calling him by his name seemed too far fetched. I couldn’t say his name for the life of me.
His home was sad looking, like an old picture dug out from the attic of your parent’s house. It was decorated with autumn leaves and the roof slightly drooped. The leaves crumbled against the harsh texture of the roof and eventually slid down onto the lawn where they laid numbly on untrimmed, neglected grass.
Perhaps it was wrong of me, but I romanticized every situation, and now war had made me ashamed of thinking so. He says now that it’s okay, but his eyes have also dulled to a muted gray, which alarms me, but what can I really do?
Thinking back to the moment before we gently knocked at his door, I remember feeling nauseous. As if I were about to be met with a bullet and I wondered if he felt the same way. My head gingerly rested on the door, intently listening for his footsteps. It was as if the house were haunted, making me nervous and half scared, however one look at his face made me realize that I had no idea what fear was, selfishly stringing along the alleged feeling I thought I was familiar with. Instead, I learned the real definition of fear.
It was him. He was fear and tiredness and war all in one. The person who opened the door and stood in front of me wasn’t human. It was a stranger.
I had known him for years and throughout those years, we’d shared plenty of blissful kisses. Now, watching him carefully maneuver back to let us in, it was as if that person had vanished into thin air, leaving behind this corpse of the man I used to kiss.
When he opened the door wider, we took a peek inside his home. It was abandoned by his parents and left under his name. Once glance around the perimeter of the small space make us suck in our breaths and politely enter although our eyes were screaming sympathy. Decorating the tea placed thoughtfully on the table was his own hell. While he had become my hell, something else consumed him. Bottles of whiskey and wine littered around the table and floor. It was as if this person staring sheepishly at us was ashamed of who he had become but it wasn't his fault. It was never his fault and it still isn’t. It is this God forsaken world that penalizes young men for their misconduct, and taunts them by dangling their lives from a single thread. I wondered if that thread threatened to snap when I left him, but I never asked.
When I reached up to kiss his cheek, he shuddered which made my heart drop because I was a stranger to him as much as he was to me. His eyes swept over my left hand where a ring lay, untouched and unspoken of. A sudden sadness froze me as I watched him weakly smile and lean down to gather the bottles in his long arms. “You don’t have to,” he mumbled, knuckling at his eye. “Really, it’s alright.”
My heart ached for him, and I ached to touch him, however my hands were tied behind my back and it would be invasive of me. Instead, I smoothed out my jacket lapels and took a seat besides my friend.
One of them, out of the two, shot me a concerned look which I managed to dodge with a tight smile and gentle shake of my head. At this point, I couldn’t care about what they thought of me, or how they would perceive what I was about to do. I wanted to come clean to him and tell him all of the horrible things I’d been doing while he was fighting for his country unwillingly. I reached for my tea, noticing it was cold, and quietly took a sip, relieving my constricted throat with the bland flavors. There was sugar in there, which warmed me the slightest bit because he remembered how much sugar I liked in my tea.
When he returned, his face was slightly damp and eyes less bloodshot. He easily smiled at the three of us before sitting down across from us. I noticed he winced as he sat and it made me want to gently coax him into the small space I had besides me, but it shouldn’t have mattered because I didn’t love him anymore and his discomfort meant absolutely nothing to me. Regardless, I kept an even face and listened to him speak.
“‘S a bit cold now, isn’t it?” he said, glancing around the room as if checking for a loose screw on a window. “Quite chilly for April.”
We all nodded, unsure of what to say. He looked sadder than ever when he finally let his eyes fall on me, a smile toying at the corners of his lips when I refused to look away. I didn’t know how to respond to his kind gesture, so I blurted stupidly, “We’re glad you’re not dead.”
Now, this sentence wasn’t a complete lie. He was alive and we were happy about it, but the only one who cared was me. I cared that his limbs were still attached to his body and I cared that he returned home in one piece rather than a million. While he was incredibly distant from my reach, I felt spiritually connected with him. He’d made me proud and he knew it.
“I’m glad I’m not dead either,” he said back sincerely. “A couple of my comrades are alive too.”
I scrunched my nose with distaste. “Comrades? Don’t use that word.”
“What’s a better word?”
“Friends, alliances, partners in crime,” I offered.
“I’ve committed a couple crimes, yeah,” he replied thoughtfully but the statement made me take a step back. Luckily, I wasn’t put on spot to answer because a friend interfered.
“You haven’t committed any crimes.” She reached across her tea and touched his hand.
He visibly shook, a deep frown now embedded on his features. He clearly didn’t like the touch of her soft hand on his, and he drew his hand back, letting it rest idly on his knee. I noticed his other hand had scrunched up into a fist. I wondered if he’d let me touch him. I couldn’t bear t try it, but the urge to feel his warmth was getting insatiable. Simply talking to him wasn’t doing enough.
I discreetly removed the ring off my finger and tucked in into my breast pocket. Although I wasn’t married or engaged to be married, I felt as if I had cheated him. He had been gone since the summer of 1917 and it was only right of me to attempt to move on from him. I’d cheated him by spending nights at dances and by walking home with soldiers whose names I couldn’t remember now. I could remember the gloves on their hands and I remember thinking that he wore the same gloves and I missed holding his damn hand. Now, knowing he had both his hands was enough.
I looked back up, a shiver passing through my spine when I caught his eye. The two girls besides me began chatting about their adventures while the men were off to war, and how they avidly participated with Red Cross. None of the past year came to mind, but I did suddenly recall the moments before he left. It seems impossible now that those lips could kiss me like that. Did he leave or did I leave him? Did he leave me for a fake promise of the betterment of America, or did I leave him in hopes of finding a much more suitable cuddle at night when I grew restless and tired from a lack of affection?
He looked so tired, eyelids drooping, not because of his slight intoxication, but because of his perturbed body that refused to go down. I knew what he was thinking. Once his head hit my shoulder, he would be asleep like the winter nights of 1916, but we couldn’t do that anymore.
His left eye dropped to a wink. I needed to get some air, maybe walk around a little to get my insides working once more. My heart was beating furiously, threatening to stop beating if I didn’t lunge at him. My hands were in fists now just like his left hand, restraining myself.
“You look well,” I started, hoping he’d give me a witty reply. He blessed me with one.
“Yeah? Shell shock can do loads for you.”
I grinned. “It’s a good look on you.” There I was, romanticising the worst situations, but I couldn’t help myself! “I mean that in the best way.”
“Yeah? I figured you might say that. You always did.”
My heart strings were being played with and I didn’t mind one bit. “I always did,” I repeated.
His eyes were gleaming, a strict contrast to his appearance, his home, his aura. He looked like the young boy I fell in love with when I was 17 with bright, intelligent eyes and happiness flowing through him. It was a mistaking ruining his life by leaving him and it was horrid mistake trying to fix this mess up with two chatty girls besides me over tea. His face implored to be released from whatever strict force held him back, and while I was more than willing to lend him a hand or a set of kisses, I decided that he needed to learn to live with himself, knowing the crimes he had committed. I forgave him for them. He clearly didn’t forgive himself.
When we departed a few hours later, I reached up to press my cheek against his and he allowed me to. I was happy about it. I was happy in that exact moment. He’d done it for me even. He had an identity now.
He was the epitome of war and tiredness and self loathe, but he was also my lover.