My nostrils are burning. The fumes radiating off the Tarmac are making my eyes water. I’m under my bird pre-flighting the nose gear—my shoulder blades pressed into a plastic creeper. I can’t rub my eyes again without coating them in grease. Someone runs by me, nearly tripping over my foot. I try to roll out from under the bird and hit my head. Before I can stand, Ray grabs my arm and yells something. I can see his mouth moving, but my ears are ringing. More people are running now.
The first fuel pit explodes shortly after I secure my flak and rifle. The heat is radiating off my skin; I feel like I’m burning alive. I’m on land, but I’m running through water. I’ve lost control of my breath—breathing is no longer something my body can do for me. I have to think to move air in and out of my lungs. Ray shoves me down to the ground, I can feel him at my side. I pull out my gun to shoot.
“Eric!” Leila screams. “Eric! It’s me!”
I can’t see straight.
“You’re safe,” Leila says. “You’re home. We’re sitting in the closet, in our home.”
She loosens my grip on the umbrella and hangs it back on the closet door. I don’t remember curling myself up like this.
“It happened again, didn’t it? Didn’t it? I ask, “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”
Leila presses my hand into the carpet floor. Her skin feels strange against mine.
I don’t mention this incident in therapy. Sometimes I like to pretend I’m still the same as before, that my small part in the war in Afghanistan didn’t fuck me up that badly.
For today’s session, I’ve set up on the couch. Leila surrendered the loft for me to use as an office. She tries her best to give me privacy, but I know she can’t resist trying to listen from the bottom of the stairs. My drink glasses from last night are sitting too close together. They tap each other with the movement of the floor. I can only catch a few of my therapist’s words; I’m trying to figure out how to keep the ceiling fan from squeaking. I think it’s moving too fast. I wonder how much of it will hit me if it fell, probably enough to knock me out, at least for a little while. The rickety sound is making my body twitch.
“Eric?” She asks.
I turn my focus back toward the screen, to my therapist. I’d almost forgotten she was there.
“We were talking about a moment of discomfort,” she says. “Something not too traumatic. I need you to start tapping on your chest again.”
I follow her instructions reluctantly. The practice of EMDR is absurd, somehow tapping my arms at a steady pace is supposed to help me tell her all my darkest secrets.
“Now, tell me about that moment of discomfort you chose,” she says.
“It was when Leila came to pick me up,” I say. “We were apart for about a year or so. We wrote letters back and forth when we could. I always expected she’d come running and hug me. We hardly spoke—I didn’t even put her hand on my leg the whole drive home. It was like we didn’t know each other anymore.”
“You’re doing great,” she says. “How are you feeling right now?”
“I’m okay,” I say.
I feel my legs go numb during our session, she keeps reminding me to move my hands to a steady pulse. The sharp pain in my leg makes it jerk every time I try to extend my foot. I wonder how much longer I’ll have to keep showing up to these to keep Leila happy.
When the session finally ends, I shut my laptop and walk down the hall to find Leila in the kitchen. She’s standing over the stove.
“Hey,” she says, turning to face me, “How was your session?”
She’s really trying.
“It was fine,” I say.
“I’m leaving for work in ten minutes,” she says. “Did you make any plans to get out?”
“Ray called,” I say. “I’m meeting him for lunch.”
“That’s good,” she says, “It’ll be good for you to get out and see someone you can actually talk to.”
She knows I haven’t really been talking to my therapist. I hate leaving the house. This is the first conversation where we haven’t argued about money or the fact that I won’t do more than sleep on the couch. I don’t think she understands that it’s not that I don’t want to do anything, but that I can’t.
When she leaves, I get up to greet my stubble in the bathroom mirror. I toss my clothes in the corner and let the shower head send beads of water down my back until it runs cold. Leila and I used to have chemistry—we were teenagers drunk on this dream of true love. We got engaged, and then I got deployed; and now, I think she’s scared of me.
She was right about me needing to get out. Ray is the one person here that would really understand, but we’ve never really been ones to talk about our feelings. I don’t talk about what happened there.
When I get to the restaurant, I park beside Ray’s car. He’s chosen an old diner, the kind that looks sketchy, but the food is good as long as you ignore the health ratings. He still drives the same beat-up red chevy with the half-removed army stickers on the back.
I find him sitting with his back to the wall in the corner of the room. He stands to greet me.
“Hey, man,” Ray says. He reaches out to shake my hand.
“It’s been a minute,” I say.
My chair scrapes the floor when I move it closer to the table, it makes my body cringe. When the waitress comes, I order a cup of coffee and Ray tells me about his wife and the new baby on the way; apparently, his wife is upset because she really wanted a girl. His parents have been showering them with everything they can find in the color blue. Their house has become a storage facility for diaper boxes and baby toys. Since he’s been back, he got a job working in finance and he’s using his GI bill to finish school. He asks me how I’m doing.
“Alright,” I say. “I’ve been back a few months now and I’m adjusting to being home again.”
I don’t tell him about my nightmares, the therapy appointments Leila signed me up for, or the fact I can’t carry my gun anymore. I just tell him things are fine: I’m fine, Leila’s fine, we’re doing fine.
Ray sneaks behind my back to pay the bill and refuses my thanks. He takes my hands in his and offers me a somber welcome home. I watch his red truck pull out of the parking lot and realize that’s where I have to go now: home. I was taught to accept the fact that I was already dead, it’s what made me a good soldier. No one told us what happens when we survive.
I’m exhausted. One trip out of the house is more than I can handle. Without all that adrenaline, the world moves slower. When I arrive home, I’m desperate to remove myself from the jean buttons digging into my skin. My hand moves toward a glass, but I opt for a cigar, and take it out to the porch to light it. My forehead is sweaty, the brisk air feels good on my face and arms. I’m always too hot. I sit and watch the puffs of smoke leave my mouth until it gets dark. My body jerks when Leila comes up behind me.
“Hey,” she says, softly.
“I don’t think I came all the way home,” I say.
Leila comes to sit beside me and steals the cigar from my lips. Her head lands softly on my shoulder. She exhales a mixture of sigh and nicotine.
“I know,” she says.