A previous version of this piece was published in Words After War.
I am sitting in a grease-splattered chair in the only diner in Ovid, Michigan. Seated at my right is my husband. To my left sits James*, the man I once thought I would marry.
My heart beats a rough rat-a-tat while I collect my thoughts. I look down, hoping all my preparations will give me comfort. Instead, I’m overcome by the immense feeling that I am out of my league. James was a newspaper reporter and the editor of his college paper in a previous lifetime. I can’t help but feel embarrassed as he looks over my rookie setup: a slim voice recorder, a sheaf of papers with scribbled questions and messy marginalia, a blue Mead notebook, backups for my backup pens and pencils.
My speech is wild and loud — to drown out the music, I tell myself. But really, the peaks and crests of my voice are a side effect of a rampant case of nerves, which is amplified, of all strange things, when I notice the familiar black wool hooded jacket James used to wear, still wears. The innocuous item stirs up a thick cloud of frenzied memories that refuses to settle in my mind as I pick at chunks of salty deli meat and limp pieces of cheese.
I remember seeing James for the first time. He was walking into a sweaty bar in D.C. near Union Station. He was a Marine then, too, but just barely. He was muscular, with shoulders slightly too narrow for his six and a quarter feet. His smile and his devastating, too-deep dark eyes made my heart race.
The last time I saw James this closely, we were at the San Diego Airport. He was standing beside his open car door, waving erratically with a soul-melting smile on his thin face. I waited until I was inside the glass doors to let loose a stream of tears. I always hated to say goodbye. He always hated it when I cried.
Neither of us expected that it would be several years before we would see each other again. Nor would we have anticipated that our meeting would occur in a rundown, one-diner rural town in his home state, or that I, a native Virginian, would coincidentally call Michigan my new home — and another Michigander my husband.
I force myself to think about why we are sitting beneath the stained drop ceiling of this dilapidated diner: James’ recent return from Afghanistan. When I met James, I was about to start a civilian career with the Army. Years later, I gave that career up to become a semi-Midwestern housewife, and to start writing a novel about love and Afghanistan. Part of the story is set in Helmand Province, where James spent the better part of the previous year. During the holidays, he has graciously consented to meet me halfway between his home and mine to share details of his experience as a young Marine, and to tell me about Helmand.
We devote the better part of our first hour to basic questions about the life of a young platoon commander before we scratch the surface of James’ deployment.
I start with the basics. “Where in Helmand were you stationed? What element did you belong to?”
“I was in a small training advisory team stationed at Camp Leatherneck. Just twenty of us. We didn’t belong to anything; we were relatively autonomous.”
“And where exactly is Leatherneck?”
“It’s about four hundred miles east of Iran, just north of Pakistan. We were so close to Camp Bastion we could watch the aircraft taking off.”
“Bastion is that close?”
“Yeah,” James says. He drops his fork and grabs the notebook from my hands. He flips my page of scribbles over, and on the blank back side, he draws me a map of the two bases and their surroundings. “There’s a control tower right here,” he adds, drawing a small square in the middle of the boxes. In a slanted block print I would recognize anywhere, he scratches a few labels on his map.
This has happened before. Subtract several years, and James and I were dressed to the nines, sitting in a circular table in the corner of fancy La Petite Auberge in Fredericksburg. While we devoured a charcuterie plate filled with cold, smoked meats, rich cheeses, and salty olives, he grabbed the oversized paper menu and flipped it over. Bearing down on the pressed white tablecloth, he filled the back of the menu with an elaborate drawing of friendly and enemy forces arranged around a hill. As he accented the depiction with a series of lightly drawn arcs, snatches of block words, and dotted lines, he explained how to call in an artillery strike on an enemy if there were a hill in the way. There was a fire in his eyes, and I was in love.
James hands me back my notebook, and I accept it gingerly. My previously becalmed heart is back to its old tricks. I flip straight away to the previous page, desperate to fill the silence. My eyes leap up and down before focusing on another question.
“Did you have any anxiety when you were over there?”
I expect an answer bloated with confidence and swagger. After all, James is a hardened Marine sharing a table with his ex-girlfriend and her husband. As if that weren’t enough, at a nearby table a family in layers of winter weight, copious facial hair, and heavy camouflage outerwear is celebrating their daughter’s volleyball victory. Judging from the blood spatter on their hunting boots, they’re probably also celebrating a very recent kill. This does not seem to be a good environment for an honest answer to my question.
James surprises me, pausing thoughtfully. “You know, I wasn’t on a patrol base. I wasn’t forward. But yes, there was anxiety every day. We would go out on convoys, and when you leave the base, you’re wired, constantly waiting to take fire, listening for rockets, searching for any sign that there’s an IED buried ahead. When you come back on base, you’re amped up, and it’s hard to come down again.”
“What about on base?”
“Well, there were always Afghans on base. We heard about attacks all the time — mostly Afghan on Afghan. It didn’t take long for one of the Americans to convince me to keep the safety off on my service pistol. It was a Beretta — it had a tough trigger pull. Did you ever shoot one?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. James taught me to shoot, but we never shot a Beretta. Knowing how it would make my husband feel, I decide this is not the time or place to mention the past.
But there it is, in a recess of my mind. I remember the penetrating chill in the range, and how the only warmth, at first, came from James’ hands against mine on either side of the machined metal. And then, after my body started absorbing all that recoil, my blood pumped so hard that my frozen toes began to pound in pain.
I wiggle my toes, now warm inside two layers of woolen socks, to remind myself that I am not there.
“Well, that’s what we had, and, like I said, the pull was so tough you didn’t really need a safety. I always kept the pistol hot, just in case.”
“Green on Blue?” I ask, thinking of all the AP reporting I’d come across, back in the day, about these startling attacks from Afghans who were supposed to be allies
He nods, stiff-jawed.
I can’t conceal a grimace. I imagine James walking around inside the wire with his hand, stiff from anxious tension, hovering beside his pistol. I imagine him spending nine months with his mind cleaved roughly in two: one half focused on the task at hand while the other waited for a member of the Afghan National Army or Police to turn his weapon on his American trainers.
“For the first two months, I struggled with a general sense of anxiety. You go out, and you always just think, ‘Maybe it’s today.’ Eventually I adopted a healthy fatalism.” He pauses and looks away. His eyes come back, but they don’t quite meet mine. “You know, while I was over there, I had come up with all these big plans, all these things I wanted to do when I got back — go to the Grand Canyon, go skiing. But I couldn’t. For the first two weeks, I really just had to lay low. You just don’t realize how exhausting that constant stress is when you have it for so long. There are little things. Like driving at home, I notice everything. Because for those nine straight months, driving was so stressful.”
Though I am sweating in my long underwear and flannel, I shiver. As James talks about the week he spent in Kyrgyzstan decompressing from the battle zone before coming home, I see it plainly. Below the surface of his eyes, it ripples, something I’ve never seen there before: fear.
In the man I used to love, there was never an iota of fear. One stiflingly hot summer night, this man ran recklessly through three consecutive red lights in Old Town Alexandria to get me back to the house, just because I told him I needed to use the bathroom. Another time, I watched him fill our empty glasses from an obscenely rich man’s bottle service vodka at the trendiest of Adams Morgan nightclubs. Even as he was being threatened angrily about the alcohol theft, James just smiled and kept pouring. No one and nothing fazed him.
In the course of our relationship I always worried about the ways I might lose him: on his two-day, mid-winter, cross-country car ride from Michigan to Camp Pendleton; during one of his inevitable deployments; in a training accident on base. I was always crying — always afraid — because the possibility of the world being absent his infectious, vivacious, passionate, hard-driven life force was so real.
No matter how much I cried or how often I voiced my fears about his probable deployment to Afghanistan, James remained infuriatingly confident, filled with an impenetrable sense of bravado that blocked out each of my anxieties.
It is clear that the fearless man I loved has been somewhat distorted. And though I know that it should not, the realization makes me feel as though something inside me is ripping, tearing open. There is something absolutely devastating about knowing that James, whom I have always admired for all his confidence, has been brought to this place of uncertainty.
I charge ahead and stumble through what remains of my questions. As we prepare to leave, my husband walks away from the table. James and I are alone. My glance flickers over his dark eyes, and I search for a way to say what I have been thinking.
“It’s so good to see you,” is the only thing I manage. Deep down, I know nothing I can — or should — say will begin to do justice to the feelings weighing so heavily on my heart.
*Name has been changed for privacy