The Boys Think This Story Is About Them
by Matthew J. Hefti
When Eris was a girl, she spent a summer with her mother at a beachfront home on Florida’s Emerald Coast. The home was owned by a family friend, and they had gone there during one of the separations before Eris’s parents ended their marriage for good. It was the first time Eris had ever been near the ocean and she could not sleep for days. When she closed her eyes, the rolling of the waves made her sick, as if she herself were rocking. Her mother spent her own days in bed before she dressed up, put on makeup, and left for the nights. Eris spent hours alone watching the caps break onto the white sands that spread out from the condo. The sands glowed in the moonlight. When she eventually returned home, she could not sleep without the waves.
The memory was remote and distant, as if it had happened in a dream rather than in her childhood. She had not thought of this period in her life in years. Yet, this is what she thought about as she tossed and turned, unable to sleep without her husband, Nick, by her side.
The men rode in silence into the sunset, and the falling sun grew bigger and brighter as they drove, and finally, it burst in front of them.
The next thing Nick saw was the driver’s seat, that is, the seat he had been sitting in. Flames licked at the seat, and the olive drab vinyl boiled and bubbled in front of him. The electronic countermeasures crushed his leg, and his driver’s side door came to rest on the highway. He looked down at his chest and saw an arm, and the arm was not his own. The blast had torn the passenger’s side door from the vehicle, and the opening poured thick black smoke into the air. Nick stared at the opening, catching glimpses of the orange sky during gusts of wind in which the smoke billowed away for less than a moment. He could not move, and he could not hear.
She believed history was important; the past created the present—the two were fatally intertwined with each other—and history was bred from memory. This is how Eris remembered her whole life: in short viral video clips. Viral as infection. Her memory was high-definition media swimming in a digital pool in her brain. Every once in a while, one of these clips floated to the surface. The sounds of the present faded into the background like the oscillating surf of the sea. The colors of the other images blurred and rippled, and the buoyancy of the one that floated demanded her attention.
Here is an image, from before the war: Nick sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor on some wild night when his best friend got him high and then punched him out. And she had been stupid too, but for good reason: for him. This was the night of the drinking, the bathtub, the hospital. He was heartbreaking with his boyish cheeks, his fuzzy blond buzz cut, and the confused but trusting hopefulness of an abused child. He rocked back and forth and looked her right in the eye. He listened to every word she had to say about why she couldn’t go home, about why her life had lost all meaning. He listened and he cared. That was important to her. She could hear him grinding his teeth, and yes, his eyes were so dilated she couldn’t see his irises, but she could hear the sincerity in his voice when he told her, “You saved me tonight.”
She leaned forward to kiss him and said, “No, you saved me.”
“Because I love you,” he said. “I don’t want to sound vulnerable, because I’m not, but because I love you.”
He didn’t know irony and he didn’t know lies, and she could hear that. When she began to take her clothes off, she could also hear him say, “No. Didn’t you hear me?”
By then, she had only heard no. And she felt confused. He probably sensed this because he had always looked out and not in. He reached his hand out to touch her face. He ground his teeth and smiled at her. “You have to understand.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. He had studied a bit of Greek at that little Christian high school of his, and it was this gibberish he used to explain himself. “There’s philos,” he told her. “And I love you like that. And eros. I want to love you like that. Believe me, I want to love you like that. I mean, how could I not? But I can’t love you like that. Not now. But the other love, it’s called agape. And that’s how I need to love you. That’s how I love you. So please don’t take your clothes off.”
She didn’t understand all of that back then. Didn’t care. She only heard, “I don’t love you like that.”
She didn’t like to think of all this as before the war—as if all time should be categorized by where he went and what he had done and how he had returned—because it seemed to legitimize it all and excuse it all, and it took her out of the equation. But the problem was this: She didn’t know how else to think of it. She would give anything to go back to the way it was before the war, back when he so nakedly expressed himself.
He smacked his dry tongue. “You have to understand what I mean. The words seem so inadequate, and I love you, but that doesn’t begin to cover it. I wish,” he said. He then hit his own head with an open palm trying to think of how to explain it.
“It’s fine.” And it was. It really was. She didn’t need words. She sat on the floor in front of Nick and looked into his eyes for an eternity. Each one a sea of glass, like unto crystal, and as deep and endless as the night.
She smiled. Sniffed. She stood up. “Let me tuck you in,” she said. “Let me put music on and tuck you in. You won’t sleep, but you can dream.”
She had pride back then. She held herself together with a sure hope that she’d have him.
And then when Eris least expected it, there was this: A letter from Brooke Army Medical Center announcing Nick’s return. And then another memory: Nick coming down the walkway at the airport.
She had been late. She wanted to look perfect. She ended up having to run from the parking lot, trying not to slip in her high heels. By the time she made it to the door, she felt a single bead of sweat run down her back. She wore a ribbed sweater and a long pearl necklace. A flower-patterned skirt that clung to her hips and thighs. Tall, high-heeled, black leather boots. She had ironed her hair straight. She wanted to look like a woman, not the teenage girl he’d left behind.
He stood at the top of the ramp looking nervous and unsure of himself. He was thin and pale, but even from across the airport she could recognize him. Could recognize the way he looked around at everyone and everything as he moved. He did his best to mask his limp, and he carried himself with his shoulders back and his chin up. But then, from a distance, Eris saw Nick light up. He lost all sense of himself and he started shuffling down the ramp, running as well as he could.
Eris wanted to cry at how they had broken him, but she thought, “It’s okay. I can still love this. I can still love him.”
Eris rushed forward and thrust her arms under his and she buried her head in his chest and she hugged him. “You’re home. You’re actually finally really home.” She pulled her arms from around him and put her hands on his chest. “Let me look at you.” She took a step back. “Oh my,” she whispered, wiping her watering eyes.
“I know.” He looked down at the ground. “I look like I got blown up.”
“You look beautiful,” she said, embracing him again. “I’ve never seen anything look so beautiful.”
She thought it would be perfect like that forever; she was still a naïve, foolish, stupid little girl.
The weekend before Nick left for his deployment, his Uncle Thomas—pastor of Nick’s church—had asked him if he’d be willing to come to the chancel to receive a blessing and a prayer before he went on his way. Uncle Thomas had given Nick the choice between several passages which invariably called down curses upon God’s enemies and called for victory and vengeance for His people. No doubt the preacher’s intentions were good with Nick going to war and all, but the crusading Psalms he had cited always made Nick uncomfortable; and though he had always believed such violent musings somehow fit into the larger plan of divine justice, retribution, et cetera, Nick preferred to leave the reconciliation between law and gospel to the theologians—or better yet, to the Judge himself. As an alternative, he requested something more uplifting and reassuring.
Sunday morning, Nick made his way to the front of the church and knelt under his Uncle Thomas’s long shaking fingers. As a result of Nick’s discomfiture with the very book he professed, all 233 members in attendance at Immanuel Lutheran Church’s early service heard the pastor provide a divine promise of Nick’s safety with the words of Holy Scripture. He heard the old preacher intone the dismal and foreboding, yet strangely reassuring words from the ninety-first Psalm: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”
Such memories are only recognized as significant in rewrites and retrospect. That is, if they hold any significance at all. But those words of promise did spring bitterly to the front of Nick’s mind as he fought against gravity and the weight of the destroyed equipment pinning him into the burning truck.
When the smoke began entering his lungs and when the flames crept closer to his legs, increasingly desperate words flew forth from his soul. He called upon the name of his God, because this surely was his day of trouble. Yet, the longer he waited for rescue, the more frantic he became.
The flames reached his pants and they burned. They reached his sleeve and it, too, burned. Pain does not begin to describe a broken femur, compound fractures, and flames biting at every inch of exposed skin. Nick gave up on rescue and simply prayed for death. When this did not come, his previous reluctance to curse his enemies disappeared. As each second of the blinding, bleeding, blistering pain of hellfire stretched into what felt like years, other words, imprecatory words sprung to his lips. He had no compunction when he begged for the complete destruction of that place, that feigning whore Babylon. He had no regret when he cried out a prayer that their wives would be widows and all their children would be dashed against the stones.
And later, when he could no longer fight, when he could stand the flames no longer, and when he still had not been saved, blackness edged into his vision and closed in. The darkness did not overtake him until one sad, final question fell from his lips: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
To prove how stupid she had been—thinking it would be perfect forever—this is a memory from the last Thanksgiving, when things were really bad: Nick limping away behind a foggy windowpane. Eris stared at the condensation on the window in their living room. Her elbows leaned against the back of the couch that sat against the wall. The rough brown fabric felt like burlap on her knees. She looked down, wondering why she wasn’t wearing pants. She didn’t move, but she still lost her balance and had to brace herself. She fought to keep her bobbing head up. She wiped her hand against the cold glass so she could see outside.
She didn’t hear his footsteps, and she didn’t hear the screen door, yet she could see him running away again. She watched Nick limp to his car, his mouth set. He didn’t slam the door. He didn’t peel out. He just drove away. She would have preferred that they scream and throw things at each other; but no, he was always content with silence. A man of action with little use for words. For hours, for days, for weeks, he was happy running away to his bar to work eighteen hours a day, to come home only for a shower and a bed, or as he called it, a hot and a cot.
She turned and slid down the couch until she sat on the floor. She screamed out curses at him, although he was already gone. She could smell her own vomit on her breath as she wailed. Eris was sure Nick believed there was dignity in the way he fought, in the way he refused to be sucked into arguments, in the way he would never yell at her. She beat the floor with her fist and she threw herself down, her tears and drool wetting the fibers of the carpet. She was no longer capable of such dignity.
She crawled into the guest bedroom, the carpet burning her knees. She found a plastic bottle of cheap vodka tucked into one of Nick’s old combat boots, and she drank it. Choked it down like medicine. Even after Uncle Thomas slapped her awake, she refused to pull herself together.
“Nick is hurt,” Uncle Thomas said, as he tapped his open hand against her cheek. “I mean hurting. He’s hurting.”
“You’d never know it talking to him,” Eris told him. “He’s a tree. A solid tree that doesn’t listen or talk.”
The real truth was this: Then, as now, she felt unheard. The words she said seemed no louder than the thoughts in her own head. Her conversations indistinct from her dreams.
Eris laughed without mirth. “He’s not a tree; you can burn a tree down. They couldn’t do that. But they tried. They sure as shit tried to burn him down, didn’t they Reverend?”
Uncle Thomas nodded.
“He’s a rock. You can’t burn down a rock.”
“No,” Uncle Thomas said. “But you can burn down a marriage.”
And that was true.
It was also true that if you ignored your wife hoping she’d just go away, she probably would.
But life has its own rules of inertia, so here is an image from today: Nick reading a postcard from Levi—his own personal savior in Iraq—a smile playing at his lips. Nick read it as he walked in from lunch. He tossed his keys on the table, and turned the card over twice, looking at both sides.
“Why are you smiling?” She didn’t think it was an odd question. It had been a long time since he had smiled like that.
“I’m not smiling.”
“Yes you were.”
He handed the card to her, postmarked from Watertown, New York. “Levi still thinks he’s living in some story.” The postcard was covered in a small, slanted, cursive scrawl.
Let me introduce myself. My name is MISTER Levi Hartwig and I’m free of all obligations and responsibilities. Hitting NYC. I’ll try to dance with some older women and maybe hire a prostitute, just to hear her talk. After that, home.
She, too, turned it over. There was a picture of a red-and-blue snare with two drumsticks. “I thought he was in Afghanistan.”
Nick shrugged. “He was.”
“So how is he coming home?”
“Who knows? It’s army. Things change.”
“So Levi’s coming home? Is he coming back here for good?”
“He’s probably not coming back at all. Soldiers are always dreaming of home.”
“And when they finally get there,” she said, “they dream of nothing but the war.”
He looked at her for a good long while in silence. Then he walked to her and took the postcard from her hands. He set it on the table next to his keys, and he hugged her.
She thought—as he did so—that it had been months since he hugged her. He hugged her tight and it felt like he wouldn’t let go. As if he just now realized that if you don’t hold onto her, she could leave.
Matthew J. Hefti is the author of A Hard and Heavy Thing, Tyrus Books/F+W (January 2016). He was born in Canada and grew up in Wisconsin. After 9/11, he visited the Armed Forces recruiter. He then spent 12 years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq as an EOD team member and the remaining three tours as an EOD team leader. While enlisted, he earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. He is now working, studying, and living in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is pursuing his Juris Doctor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.