He often has the urge to clear his mind, to look out and see nothing. So he comes to the bench every morning, just as the dew is settling. Even at dawn he cannot escape the noises that color existence. The slightest breeze rattles the ancient swing set; a couple whose faces shine with new marriage walk by with one of those yippy dogs. These small distractions he can handle by looking into the river. By watching the water’s smooth churn, his thoughts slow to a steady pulse. Peace is fleeting, the permanent restlessness in his legs betrays him.
Then, the inevitable. He will look at his hands to steady himself, and the veins become the sprawl of the Mekong River. Like many of his “buddies,” guilt and paranoia settle in the space between his heart and his gut. Napalm and sulfur sting his nose. Heart palpitations, overwhelming feelings, emotional numbness – these are the bullet points on a list the doctor in the VA hospital checked off. This is the routine.
As the sun goes higher, the water browns. Now, he clutches one side of the bench so hard to numb himself to what he knows will come next, what hurts much more than anxiety. Dull pain and white knuckles never succeed as coping mechanisms, he reminds himself bitterly.
Once again Jimmy’s blonde head and smiling face are next to him. The memory always begins with the best Jimmy he knew, the one with a body that looked like a body should look. And Jimmy’s laughing, Jimmy was always laughing. He had read a word once, cachinnating: to laugh loudly and in an unrestrained way. Jimmy had one of those laughs, one that burned forever in the mind, searing, as he remembered Jimmy’s death.
As Jimmy trekked through the jungle, another burst of laughter erupted, tinged with naivety. He knew nothing of the Viet Cong bullets that would stop him in seconds. This memory shifts to a living nightmare, on repeat, triggered by something as little as the blue that colored his blood.
People call that one special person in their life a soul mate, and that’s what Jimmy was, or could have been. But Jimmy could never be his, not according to the Army, or the official legal document, or as Jimmy’s body lay broken under that white slab. There were some things you couldn’t talk about, some things that had to be numbed.
Reality shakes him back out as a woman walks past the bench. She is 30 years younger than he is. The roundness of her stomach tugs at her shirt, and her face is full. He doesn’t know if she would be considered pretty, but he thinks so, and she is something to watch. A sudden, crazy idea occurs to him that he should ask her to marry him. He’s tired of loneliness, doesn’t care if this woman is nothing to him. No one could ever replace Jimmy, but in the scheme of things, did Jimmy even exist?
Motivated by adrenaline, he raises himself on unstable legs and calls out to her. “Miss, miss! I have a question!” His legs unexpectedly find steadiness. “Would you mind talking to me?”
He waits for her to turn, to say something. But he’s really alone, with no woman in front of him. Or was she there and he just never said those words out loud? When he sought to see nothing, he saw something, something he thought was real. It was never there, none of it ever existed.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.