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“What do you mean you’re not going back?”

“Mom, it’s no big deal.  I’ll be just fine without my bi-weekly bitch sessions with Dr. Reynolds,” Erin said, shaking her head.  She had known this would be the response and had put off the conversation as long as possible, three days to be exact.  Inevitably, when her weekly phone call home hadn’t come at precisely 10 o’clock Sunday morning, her mom had dialed immediately.

“No big deal?  Erin, I really don’t think it wise to simply quit going.  I hardly think you’ve dealt with all the issues with Kevin’s death,” her mother stated.  Her penchant for blunt practicality never failed to amaze Erin, who had long learned to only half listen to the inevitable passive aggressiveness aimed at her decision-making abilities.

“Oh please, it’s been fourteen months…”

“And you think that everything’s solved simply because of the passage of time?” her mother interrupted.

“No, Mom,” Erin raised her voice.  “I think that some things time will never heal and I understand that.  I think I am functioning well enough given everything I’ve been through.  And I definitely know that being guilt-tripped and second guessed by you isn’t helping!”

The last statement stung her mother, she knew, and Erin instantly felt bad for having said it.  But she didn’t apologize.  It’s the truth, she thought, as she listened to the shallow breathing on the other end of the phone.  She waited, expecting to hear the sniffle that would signal the extent of her mother’s hurt feelings.  She heard nothing.  Goddamn it, Mom! Don’t you dare try to guilt-trip me!

“So, how’s your research coming?” her mother broke the strained silence by abruptly changing the subject.  It was her way of avoiding confrontation, a relationship trait that she had perfected, and one that had been as effectively passed on to her daughter as any.  But for once, Erin welcomed the avoidance.

“Not bad,” she answered quickly, determined to not allow the conversation to return to her therapy decision. “I’ve made progress lately.”

While technically honest, it was a stretch to label it progress, and she knew it.  The enthusiasm with which she had attacked her schoolwork at the beginning of the semester had ground to the halt since the coffee incident.  She had always relied on the library to provide the discipline and focus she needed to work.  Attempts to study at home had never been fruitful.  As an undergrad, roommates had often referred to Erin as their absentee cohabitant.  With 24-hour access to the library, she had frequently studied until she collapsed in the early morning hours, drool staining the textbook pages where her head landed, a technique she had proudly dubbed a study halt.

“Speaking of which, I really ought to be going.  I want to finish a few more articles this afternoon.  Thanks for the call, Mom.”  A few niceties later, Erin hung up the phone.  Instead of heading for the library, though, she sat and pondered her last visit there.

*************

For the past two weeks, Erin had done her best to avoid the library, sneaking in and out of SPEA by a side door on the second floor.  Eventually, though, she would have to go back there.  She knew that.  After all, her research depended on it.  The university’s main library, which stood directly across the street from her office, had proved unfruitful.  For one thing, while architecturally impressive as a tribute to the skilled sandstone cutters and numerous quarries that dotted the southern Indiana landscape, the main library was both uncomfortable and impersonal.  With study cubicles scattered haphazardly amongst the dark and institutional rows of bookshelves, the building accentuated the solitary and oftentimes miserable life of a grad student.  She had lasted four hours there before the walls of this windowless tomb of academe began closing in around her and she fled for the sunlight.  Reluctantly she’d accepted the idea of again visiting the SPEA library.

So far, so good, she thought as she huddled at a corner table, her heart pounding wildly against her ribcage.  Every minute or so, she would exhale loudly, evidence that she was, in fact, holding her breath slightly in apprehension of whatever it was that she feared might happen.  She wasn’t entirely sure what was causing her anxiety, but she was prepared nonetheless.  Like a timid mouse, she had willingly ventured out of her burrow, on guard against the dangers that waited in the open field, but without fully understanding even what that danger looked like. 

From her vantage point, she could easily observe both entrances.  In the past half-hour she had counted twenty-six people approach the library.  Two had only been interested in the trash can just outside the doors.  The others had nonchalantly wandered through those doors to find their own study nook at the pods of cubicles or expansive tables.  No sign of the Polo guy, though.  Her satisfaction with this emboldened her, although her diligent scouting of the doors detracted significantly from her ability to get anything done.  As far as she was concerned, that was alright, though.

One step at a time, she reassured herself.  Eventually, her glances toward the articles fanned out across the table became longer as her breathing and heart rate slowed.  She shrugged her shoulders and managed a small smile.  See, you can do it.  It’s not that hard

Pulling her iPod from her bag, she inserted the ear buds and pressed play.  Claire de Lune gently flooded her ears and the subtle sensation of tension flowing from her neck and upper back warmed her.  Ninety minutes later, having made good progress on her latest paper, she packed up her books and articles.  She had made it.

As she pushed back from the table, though, the metallic click of a door latch sounded behind her.  Her back was bathed in light and her shadow cast a dark shadow across the table.  Turning slightly, she froze.  From a small study room in the back corner of the library, nearly hidden by the shelves that lined the far wall, stepped the man who had caused her panic two weeks ago.  Two other young men emerged with him and strolled toward her table, their arms weighted down with identical brown leather briefcases and IBM laptops.  Like the mouse an instant before the hawk strikes, Erin felt the panic sweep over her, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  She couldn’t move, and even thoughts seemed slurred.  Oh god, what…

Their eyes met for just a second, and her breath caught in her throat.  His head tilted back slightly, as if to simultaneously acknowledge her presence and reassure her, the way frat boys and jocks greet each other with a silent “what up, bro.”  Another second and the group had passed.  Erin was alone again.  Her hand gripped the edge of the table, and had it not been made of such hard wood, she surely would have left an indentation of her bony fingers on its surface.  When she realized this, she relaxed slightly, releasing her grip that suddenly dripped with sweat.  She sank slowly back into her chair, staring at the retreating backsides of the three men until they disappeared into the hallway that separated SPEA from the Business School.  She was trembling, and it was some time before her legs felt strong enough to support her weight.  Quickly, she fled the library, choosing to exit directly to the outside and into the fresh air.  As fast as her legs could take her, she crossed the campus and blended in with the surrounding neighborhoods and toward Starbucks.

He hadn’t spoken to her.  He hadn’t tried to approach her.  There had been no attempt to gain understanding of her earlier reaction.  No pressured or awkward questions.  No nothing.  Just a nod as if to say “No worries, it’s cool.”

  Erin’s head was spinning as she approached the chain coffee shop, its familiar green and white sign warming her innards before she even stepped inside.  She desperately wanted to sit down, to calm down.  She needed to think things through.  A vanilla latte always helped with that.

She was still confused.  He hadn’t pursued her.  He hadn’t even stopped for an explanation.  It was almost as if he was intentionally giving her the space that she needed.  That certainly wasn’t something she was used to, either from her parents in the past year or from Kevin before his death.  Kevin had rarely allowed her to take time for herself.  Early in their relationship, he had stated that he believed the strongest couples were those who spent all their time together, sharing their every thought and feeling with the other, not holding anything back from their partner.  It was a philosophy that had made limited sense to her, but at the same time gnawed at her constantly.  In fact, she wanted and often needed her own space, her own time to process both the exhilarations and the maladies that life provided.  Horse rubbish,” came the response time and again.  She just needed to learn to trust him more, he felt.  And to help her, he would double the time spent together.

In time, she supposed that her trust in his kind of relationship did grow.  She slowly discarded her own interests, making every effort to embrace those hobbies, activities and interests that they both shared.  It seemed to work.  She did enjoy their time together.  And they genuinely had grown closer.  And yet, her yearning for independence continued, abated but never absent.  She learned to ignore the longings, though.  They only led to disagreements and arguments.  In fact, thinking back on the three years before his deployment, she could remember only a handful of arguments that had been spawned from issues other than her desire for greater independence.  Inevitably, each disagreement ended with her apologizing for having broached the subject.  He accepted her apologies and they moved on.  That was just their dynamic, she had countered the exasperated reactions of friends and families.

All couples have arguments.  Erin had understood that.  And perhaps that understanding is what allowed her to be swayed into thinking that theirs was a normal relationship.  After all, who is to really say what is normal and what is not?  There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, she used to tell herself, while wiping away the tears after a long fight.  Rather than create discord by insisting on what Kevin had convinced her were selfish insecurities, she had opted in the last several years to bury her desires for good, content in the knowledge that she was being a good partner.  The fights diminished, and they were on their way toward the happy, smiling relationship and life which had graced the pages of her romance novels as a teen.

Enough with the reminiscing, she reminded herself.  You need to get to work.  Shut up…It can wait.  No, it can’t…Your dissertation’s not going to write itself. 

With a tired sigh, Erin peeled herself from the canvas covered couch from Ikea, a gift to herself intended to ease the pain of the one-year anniversary of Kevin’s death.  Yes, she would make another attempt at the library.  The panic surrounding the strange young man was still there, but it was slowly dissipating. 

She grunted and strained with the sliding glass door that led from her bedroom to the large wooden deck at the back of her apartment.  The metal door runners were beginning to stick, either for lack of lubricant or due to the frost that had swept across Bloomington overnight.  Autumn here was a fleeting season, a brief respite from the stickiness of July and August before the iciness of the winter months descended upon the region.  Fall had arrived early, but had seemed to be stretching out longer than usual, allowing residents the luxury of weeks on end with temperatures in the mid-60s.  The changing foliage, whose ocular magnetism pulled thousands of visitors each year to nearby Brown County, had been exceptionally vivid this season.  The deciduous hillsides were breath-taking in their radiance, flaming crimsons and oranges speckled with patches of almost incandescent cardinal autumnal beacons.  These too were contrasted sharply with the brilliant amber, burnt umber, and copper visual flavors that blanketing the rolling hills and artisan communities that dotted the southern Indiana countryside.

When the door gradually succumbed to her brute force, Erin poked her nose out into the wind that wind snaked its way up her nostrils.  She could almost feel the warmth of the fires that filled the air with a smoky sweetness, hundreds of individual fireplaces that stimulated the collective senses of the entire city.  It was a long-sleeved day, she quickly decided, withdrawing her proboscis and throwing her weight against the door handle.  Inexplicably, this time there was no sticking, and the wall shook violently with the metallic crash of the lock plate against its frame, perilously close to crushing the fingers of her right hand that had been jolted from the handle by the lack of resistance. 

Wow, that could have been bad, she thought as her eyes darted around the room, her expression one of surprised embarrassment, an early teen caught surreptitiously masturbating by one’s mother.  She half expected to hear Kevin’s snicker, lightly mocking her clumsiness as he so often had.  But there was no one now to laugh at her now.  Instead, she felt the build-up of nervous energy bubble up from her diaphragm and heard her own laughter fill the room, a muffled chuckle that quickly morphed into a deep chortle.  It had been months since she had spontaneously laughed, and the experience left her flustered and fumbling as she twisted her arms into her black leather coat and matching gloves, a running commentary playing out in her mind. 

What the hell, girl?  It’s okay to laugh.  But there’s nothing funny.  Oh relax, silly!  I am relaxed.  Oh yeah, that’s clearly evident!  Shut the fuck up!  She ground her teeth together, slammed the front door behind her and wrestled the deadbolt into place, lucky to not bend the key in the process.  It was definitely time to get back to work. 

“To hell with you!” she whispered into the gusting wind that whipped her face.  The autumnal leaves, whose grips had already failed and that now skipped and waltzed with the wind, mocked her approach to the bus stop.  Yes, her research would be her escape once again.  As she stood motionless, though, her thoughts drifted toward the young man from the library, whose presence weighed on her mind, but whose face, she realized, she could not even picture.  And to hell with you, too!

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As the dark room came into focus, the moonlight streaming through the open blinds and illuminating all but the minutest details of the décor, Erin realized she was sitting upright in bed.  The down comforter and flannel sheets lay twisted and spilling off the side of the bed.  The recurring nightmare had left her panting and drenched in sweat, her t-shirt sticking uncomfortably to her breasts.  It was one of three dreams that tiptoed eerily into her conscience each night, lying dormant until exhaustion overcame the dread of the upcoming night and she drifted off to sleep.  In reality, it was the least disturbing of the three, but it was the most frequent, invading her psyche until she could recall it in excruciating detail.  This one wasn’t hard to interpret, a sense of guilt over something she could neither control at the time nor redo now more than a year later.  It was, Dr. Reynolds had explained, not uncommon to imagine traumatic events, even if one hadn’t been present for the actual tragedy.  Such professional confirmation seemed both idiotically simple and overwhelmingly comforting.  Yet the despite his reassurances, the dreams continued unabated.  And as always, as she sat in the darkness, her thoughts returned to last year.

The ringing of the phone had prodded her out of a deep sleep that night in June.  Exhausted from a week of wrestling with last-minute wedding details, Erin had retired at nine o’clock and was deep in the midst of a satisfying REM cycle when it rang.  Instinctively, her first glance was at the ceiling, where the time glowed from her projected alarm clock.  It was 1:43 a.m.  Her head collapse back into her thick down pillow, muffling a groan as she blindly groped for her cell phone on the cluttered bedside table.  The ringing stopped before her fingers found the phone.  Flipping it open, she read the display.  Private Number.  No message.  Still gripping the phone, she lay there.  Who would be calling at this time of night?

With only two weeks left before the nuptials, hers was a stereotypically frantic schedule of final dress fittings, meetings with caterers, florists and disc jockeys.  And as the future bride to a devout Catholic, Erin, who had been raised vaguely Methodist, attended countless meetings with the priest and various lay leaders of Kevin’s church.  She had confided in friends that these sessions felt closer to the Spanish Inquisitions than spiritual counseling, lectures ranging from the Sacraments to birth control.  But rather than protest the dogmatic brainwashing, she had elected, with prompting from the groom-to-be, to quietly acquiesce.  She sat quietly through the classes, collecting piles of religious propaganda in the form of brochures, videos and Vatican-approved books, successfully hiding her doubts and skepticism.  She could discuss them with Kevin after his homecoming.

In the early morning darkness, numerous thoughts had raced through Erin’s foggy mind.  Rhonda, her first cousin and matron of honor, surely she would have left a message if she had called.  It had been a Friday night, though, which left the possibility of drunk dials from a number of friends blowing off steam from the week.  Perhaps the call had been from her younger brother, Mark, a camp counselor at a YMCA day camp in northern Wisconsin.  He too, would likely have been out drinking and carousing on a Friday night.  And he never left messages, preferring to simply call back later.  With every possibility considered and eliminated, her mind had sprung back to one question.  Why had it been a private number?  No one she new had unlisted phone numbers.  Maybe it had simply been a wrong number, the caller realizing the mistake when the voicemail picked up.  That must be it, she’d thought, setting the phone down and rolling back onto her side, snuggling under the down comforter that Kevin insisted was too hot for summertime use.

The ceiling display showed 4:48 a.m. when the phone woke her a second time.  Private Number was again visible on the display panel.

“Hello?” Erin had answered before the ringing ended, a feeling of dread building in her gut.  The call earlier may have been a prank, but no one called with good news or just to chat this early.

Instead of a voice, however, an abrupt sequence of shrill beeps, chirps and whistles announced the attempted transmission of a fax machine on the other end of the line.  Confused and still dazed from sleep, she’d hung up the phone, staring at the device in her hand.  What the hell? Again it had rung, with the same result.  Only this time, instead of simply hanging up, she’d pressed the power key until the phone chimed, shutting down completely.

She’d been annoyed and for the next two hours had tossed and turned, wishing desperately to sleep.  Her thoughts, however, had not of the phone calls.  Instead, they had instead fixated on the wedding day nightmare that had been interrupted right as she walked down the aisle.  In the dream, the ringing of a guest’s cell phone had prompted polite giggles from others in attendance.  She had glanced nervously toward her waiting groom at the front of the church, trepidacious about his reaction.  But at the end of the aisle was not her handsome groom, dressed in the all-white tuxedo they had chosen, Instead she recognized the silhouette of a soldier, his face turned away and crimson blood dripping slowly from hands that hung limply at his side.  Her wide eyes sought answers, as a deep red stain spread across the brilliant white runner that stretched the entire length of the church.  The ringing of the second call interrupted the nightmare.

Erin couldn’t remember a time in her life when she hadn’t known Kevin.  They had met in Mrs. Thompson’s kindergarten class, sharing the playground with twenty-five other five year-olds.  Over the next twelve years, their paths had intersected continuously, the way the individual strands of a girl’s braid cross each other over and over again.  When she was seven, Kevin’s parents had moved them into house just down the street, five houses away until a sixth house was built on the vacant lot in the middle of the block.  She could recount every Halloween costume he had worn, from the clown that first year to the football player to the soldier in the final years of trick-or-treating.

To say that she’d had a crush on him from a young age wouldn’t have been true.  In fact, her earliest memories of Kevin were of a skinny, little boy.  His ears stuck straight out from under an always present baseball cap that created a permanent ring of “hat hair” in his shaggy brown hair.  Her memories were validated by many childhood photos.  Kevin had been a pretty average, if not slightly goofy-looking kid.  His jeans, Tough Skins purchased at a local thrift store, quickly adopted a greenish-brown tinge around the knees, grass stains sustained from endless games of baseball, football or some sort of violent melding of the two.

Erin, on the other hand, had favored Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids far later into childhood than most of her peers.  Her vast collection of dolls and other gender-specific toys provided her and Rebecca Starks, her first “best friend,” with hours of impassioned role-playing as they created the lives as married wives and mothers that they foresaw in their futures.  For the two of them, the throngs of pre-adolescent boys that roamed the neighborhood in search of mischief were little more than an annoyance.  “Eww, boys” they had typically exclaimed with awkwardly vivid sound effects of gagging and retching for emphasis when asked if they had boyfriends by even more annoying grown ups.

All that changed in middle school.  With pubescent hormones coursing through their bodies, an uncontrolled sprint toward years of acne and growth spurts, their interests changed as most do – toward boys.  Ewws changed to ohhs as quickly as summer gives way to the changing leaves of autumn and a whole new world blossomed before them.  Instead of dolls and tea parties, conversations turned, hesitatingly at first, but spurred on by both teenage curiosity and peer pressure, to crushes, love and sex.  Looking back, Erin was shocked and slightly embarrassed to think of the language she and her friends had used back then.  Shit and fuck exuberantly highlighted every sentence spoken amongst peers, skillfully thrown in as nouns, verbs and adjectives alike, often with little care for grammatical correctness.  And together at age thirteen, Rebecca and Erin had discovered the hidden, yet intriguing world of fantasy teen sex, little more than whispered tales of lust and masturbatory admissions.  And for both girls, it was Kevin who fulfilled those solitary fantasy moments.  His growth spurt in seventh grade, coupled with the early appearance of facial hair, a deeper voice and newfound muscles had attracted the attention of many a seventh grade girl.  And when confidence caught up to physical maturity in tenth grade, he had asked Erin out, producing more than the typical teen heart flutter.  Without hesitation, she had accepted.  Her response had been equally enthusiastic six years later, when as a college sophomore, Kevin had proposed.  Life was exactly as she had imagined it would be, high school sweethearts devoted to each other through college.  Years later she would admit the devotion related more to physical lust than actual commonalities in feelings, life direction or intellectual equality, but at the time all seemed perfect.

In actuality, she merely adopted that lifestyle that she had observed in her mother, without consideration that this was a far different time and place then the Brady Bunch world in which her parents had courted.  As such, any disappointment or disillusionment within the relationship was quickly swept under the rug.  A wife’s role was to play the supportive partner to a dominant, and in her case often domineering, husband.  Doubts never entered her mind, perpetually wrestled from conscious corners of her existence, even when domineering bordered on abuse.

She had been surprised by her emotional response on the day Kevin had announced his enlistment in the Army National Guard.  He had been similarly surprised by the ambivalence she showed to what he considered a rather momentous decision.  His surprise manifest itself as rage, leaving her bruised and battered, injuries she hid well from her friends and family, ashamed and confused.  While she had been surprised that he would arrive at such a decision without consenting her, the subdued relief she felt at the prospect of his impending three-month separation at boot camp betrayed her true feelings.  Even word that his unit was to deploy to Iraq hardly fazed Erin.  By that point, her focus was more on fulfilling her vision of a future as a trophy wife than anything else.  And if that meant passively accepting his decisions and their consequences, she seemed resigned to that.

It was on the eve of Kevin’s deployment, however, that her emotional world began its slow spiral out of control.  Jostled amongst dozens of devoted military wives, she first experienced the painful emotions of the upcoming separation.  It was a feeling common for the others, even though she wouldn’t officially join their ranks until after the 15-month deployment, the bond formed was strong, the way she imagined hostage victims forever connected with their fellow compatriots.  It was a mixture of panic, sadness, fear and apprehension, although she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why she felt that way.  In fact, she had always prided herself on being completely objective toward the hurdles and obstacles life threw her direction.

For the first couple months, she felt isolated, afraid for Kevin’s safety and obsessed with news reports from Iraq.  Days would go by without word from him, sending Erin into a tizzy.  It was the unknown that got to her the more than anything, ignorance about what he was doing, what he was experiencing, speculations of atrocities and the horrors of war to which he as being exposed.  Most of all, her worries stemmed from the rumors and fears of other wives and girlfriends about the increased likelihood of birth defects for children of soldiers serving in the combat zone.  That was her biggest worry, the threat to a vision that she held so dear, a future picture-perfect life as a working wife and mother, two kids, a dog, and a comfortable house in the suburbs with a white picket fence.  If her picture perfect future was at risk, what else mattered, she figured?

“What types of things would he tell you during those calls?” Dr. Reynolds prodded.

“It depended.” Staring at the wood paneling as she always did, she picked at the swollen cuticles of the fingers on her left hand.  It was the worst of her many nervous habits.  “If it was a good day, he wouldn’t really talk about the missions.  But if it had been a rough day, it was almost like he needed to talk about it.  He would spend the whole phone call talking about the mission.”

In reality, the details of the missions, when Kevin did talk about them, were largely unintelligible to Erin.  It annoyed her that he seemed unaware of the acronyms that he threw about in conversation the way an American in Europe might assume that everyone spoke English.  It was an annoyance that she rarely revealed, though, instead just answering in “uh-huhs” and “really.”

“How did that make you feel?” his predictable questions made her wince.

“Just like a fucking therapist,” she interjected instead of answering.

“I’m being serious,” her therapist continued, “Was there anything that you felt when he would vent about those experiences?”
Erin paused before responding, “Of course, it was pretty shitty to hear about all the crap they went through, without having any way to make it better for them.  I mean, wouldn’t you feel bad in that kind of situation?”

Dr. Reynolds smiled, “Yes, I guess I would feel somewhat powerless in that kind of circumstance.  Is that what you felt?”

“Doc, I don’t know what I felt, to be honest,” Erin answered, surprising herself with how calm she felt.  “You’re asking me to remember exact feelings that I had at a time when I wasn’t being too aware of my feelings.  Doesn’t that seem to you to be a pretty difficult task?”

“Erin, it may be a difficult task, but I wouldn’t ask it if I didn’t think it was something that we ought to explore.  And I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was something you could answer.”

“Fine,” she said, her tone a mixture of surrender and exhaustion.  It annoyed her that he could possibly understand what he was asking of her.  “So, you want to know if I felt powerless?  Of course I felt powerless.  Here was my fiancé crying about the horrible things he was seeing and probably doing.  How could I feel anything but powerless?  It wasn’t like I could relate to anything he was feeling.  I wasn’t in the Army.  I wasn’t in Iraq.  And I wasn’t seeing death on a daily basis.  So, how does anyone possibly respond to such things?”  Like a trash compactor, her fist mashed the ball of tissue into an even smaller sphere of soaked pulp.

“I don’t think there is any particular response that’s expected at those times,” Dr. Reynolds tried to explain.  “It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when one is expected to show empathy, but without really understanding the entirety of the experience.  How could you possible know what it’s like to be in combat?”

However, Erin did know more than she let on.  Kevin had told her enough to help her understand.  What he couldn’t explain, he showed to her on video, nearly daily clips uploaded and emailed to her.  It was a horror that she had resisted at first.  But eventually, she had watched in morbid curiosity.  And from that moment, the digital horrors haunted her dreams, images she couldn’t forget, no matter how hard she tried.

In therapy, however, silence was her ally and her answer.  But it was not the only answer.  Once again her eyes were tightly shut and her head shook slowly from side to side.  No, she wasn’t ready to relive those dreams, not prepared to share what she knew of the atrocities Kevin had revealed to her in those videos.

Dr. Reynolds cleared his throat, the silence rebounding before rushing back across the room the way saltwater churns to reclaim its sandy clutches with each breaking wave.  Through the slightest slits, Erin could see him watching her, and it made her uncomfortable.

Why does he do that?  Why doesn’t he say anything?  He just sits there in silence, knowing it drives me crazy!  Fucking bastard! She sighed, but this was not a sound of resignation.  No, she was testing his reaction, seeing if she could prompt some sort of response.

His gaze that had held her so steady had dropped to his notepad when she sighed, as if the air escaping her lips had forced his eyes to release their discomforting spell on her.  She had seen it and a flutter of exhilaration leapt silently from her gut into the upper reaches of her throat.  A slight smile appeared on her lips, just a quiver of the moist corners of her pursed scowl, but a smile nonetheless.  It was a small victory on the battlefield that she strode each and every day like a soldier in her own right, loyally facing wave after wave of mental machine gun fire with the mindlessness required for survival.  After all, the soldier who questions the logic behind repeated frontal attacks on a fortified enemy quickly loses grasp on his very identity.  So, too, for Erin to contemplate the emotional turmoil would be to dissolve her identity as an independent, free-thinking woman.  The little battles, no matter the source, were her foci and her primary joy these days.  And while just the hint of contentment slowly spread across her lips, inside she felt the comfortable warmth of full-fledged happiness.  It was short-lived.

“Erin,” Dr. Reynolds’s voice interrupted her satisfaction, “how long do you want to keep this up?  We’ve been meeting for almost a year, but I’m not sure from a professional standpoint, that we’re making a lot of progress.”

Silence again descended on the pair.

“I realize that you started therapy to appease your mother’s concerns,” he continued, “ but I really do want to help you.  And despite your courageous front, I do believe that deep down you are hurting.  Unfortunately, unless you are able to acknowledge a desire to address issues, to grow beyond those things in your past and move forward, I’m not sure there’s much point in continuing these sessions.”  With that, he was silent again.

A gentle and yet vile heat spread from the backs of her hands up her arms and across Erin’s face.  The exultation that had danced its way up her esophagus moments earlier pirouetted and twisted its way back down into her bowels, transforming as it slithered through her core, shock that quickly continued its path into defensive anger and ultimate rage.  It simultaneously choked and nauseated her in wave after wave of paranoia.

What the fuck?  WHAT the fuck? You’re giving up on me, Doc? Her jaw methodically snapped open and shut, but no sound was uttered.  Her vision clouded and she blinked rapidly, willing the tears back to their cistern.

“You know something, Dr. Reynolds?” she whispered toward the shimmering figure across the room.

“What, Erin?”

The bitterness of bile slowly inched its way from her back of her throat onto her tongue, and her mouth suddenly felt sticky and sickeningly dry.  A forced swallow scratched at her throat and for a moment she panicked at the thought of vomiting.  Again, her mouth flapped in silence, spasmodically at first, but slowly with more control until movement ceased entirely, her lips hovering half open.  Her vision cleared slowly and the tears that had perched on the precipice receded, replaced with an icy stare.  It was Dr. Reynolds’s turn to be uncomfortable, and it pleased her to watch his growing discomfort.  The corner of his eye twitched.  Is he scared of me? She smiled.  Staring directly into his eyes, she saw him look away the way a submissive cur silently acknowledges his place in a pack.

“Fuck you!” she exclaimed in a quiet, controlled voice.  Rising to her feet, she snapped up her backpack and stormed across the small room past the middle-aged therapist, who seemed to cringe as she strode by.  Pausing at the doorway only long enough to drop the crumpled tissue to the floor, she never looked back.

I don’t need this shit.  Fuck this.  Fuck him. And fuck you, Mom.  This time, she didn’t stop at the receptionist’s desk.  She didn’t schedule another session.  What’s the point, she thought.

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The Suitor – Chapter 2

The gritty, green haze revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  Everything was exactly as it ought to be.  The soldier glanced to the ground in front of him.  Lifting the topographical map out of the dusty sand, he carefully folded it until only a one-tenth mile area remained visible.  He slipped it into the cargo pouch of his pixilated fatigues and rose to his feet, careful to remain crouched behind the front passenger-side wheel of the Hummer.  Again, he scanned the silhouetted buildings along the horizon, ramshackle homes that by day revealed the scars and pockmarks of modern warfare.  Beyond the damaged buildings, the outline of the village’s mosque was visible, its prayer tower silent in the early morning dark, but still standing vigilant against the ideals of the western religions. 

Turning slightly, he glanced toward the shadows of a nearby grove of palm trees.  Even with the bright moonlight, one would have easily missed seeing the prone soldiers with the naked eye.  Through his AN/PVS-7D night vision goggles, however, he made out the outlines of the four prone figures, fanned out in a circle that corresponded to the four points of a compass. 

Overhead, the distant whomp whomp of a circling helicopter gunship could be heard.  It was a familiar and comforting sound that the soldiers had come to alternatively rely on and ignore in the past fifteen months, a deadly guardian poised to strike at any threat outside the wire and an airborne security blanket covering their restless sleep between missions.  Whereas others prayed to a God for protection, he prayed to the Apache.  For nearly than a year, his prayers had been largely answered.  One more night, he silently pleaded, and then it’ll be all over.

Crossing the dusty road at a trot, he approached the silent and still soldiers.  Toggling the talk switch on his compact squad radio, Specialist Kevin Strickland whispered into the headset microphone, “All clear, Sarge…good to go.”

“Okay, Delta,” the team leader’s voice crackled through the headsets, his arm outstretched for the nightvision goggles Kevin held in his hand.  Taking them, he quickly clipped them to the front of his Kevlar helmet.  He toggled the microphone again. “This is Rally Point Lima, men.  If we get hit, we fall back to this point and regroup.  Let’s do this and go home, okay?”

“Roger that,” all four soldiers on the ground responded in hushed unison, as they noiselessly got to their feet.  It was a routine they had followed often.  Kevin wondered if he would miss it.  He doubted it, he quickly decided.

“Santori, take point,” the sergeant ordered, nodding through the darkness toward the shortest soldier.  At five foot five, Specialist Paul Santori was dwarfed by the other infantry scouts.  For what he lacked in height, though, he more than made up in bravado.  No one doubted his ability to keep up with the others.  He pulled his weight and then some.  And tonight, only he and the sergeant wore night vision goggles.  The others relied on their natural eyesight and the ambient night sky, unblemished by the unnatural light of the high-tech devices.  In the darkness, no one could see Kevin blinking madly, in a vain attempt to regain some semblance of night vision, the green haze of the NODs still spotting when he closed his eyes.

“Hooah, Sarge,” Santori whispered and stepped forward.  It was a role he was used to, one he actually relished.  Through the shadows, Santori would physically lead the patrol along its assigned route, setting the pace and maintaining constant vigil ahead of the group.  If any dangers presented themselves to their front, he would instantly halt the group, pass the warning and to await directions from the sergeant.  Through two hundred and four straight missions, he hadn’t let them down.  He had no intention of breaking that streak now.

Santori moved ahead, and Kevin waited for the group to spread out.  They were careful to maintain a separation of roughly thirty yards from the trailing soldiers.  The bright moonlight tonight allowed them to spread out farther than normal, reducing the risk of multiple casualties in the case of a rocket propelled grenade or improvised explosive device explosion.  And the squad radios that they each wore eliminated what in previous wars would have made for tough communications.  Still, the squad relied less on technology than on an array of hand signals to pass information back and forth amongst themselves as they moved.  Silence was their ally and an art-form they had mastered as a team.  Only the crunching of small stones under boots sounded as the patrol moved in a wedge formation that roughly mimicked the shape of Canadian geese migrating south for the winter. 

Pivoting to check on the slowly deploying fan of soldiers, Kevin watched Santori turn forward and cautiously proceed away from the parked hummers.  Alpha squad would remain with the vehicles, poised to provide back-up if needed, as Delta crept away toward the maze of alleyways and boarded up shops that ringed an village’s marketplace.  The night’s mission was a simple reconnaissance patrol on two suspected Al-Queda safe houses in the village.  It was the type operation they knew well, and Kevin breathed easier with this reassurance.

On this night, Corporal Mitch Evans walked closest behind and to the left of Santori.  Whereas the point man carried a standard issue M-4 combat assault rifle, Evans traversed his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon toward the outline of buildings barely visible on the horizon.  With a rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute, in the event of a firefight, the squad’s safety lay heavily on Evans’s broad shoulders.  The mini-me, as the scouts referred to the SAW, was a formidable weapon indeed, particularly for keeping the heads of one’s enemies down. 

Mirroring Evan on the right side of the formation creapt Specialist Tony Gabrielski, the unlikely offspring of a Bronx prizefighter and a Russian émigré Jew.  Like Santori, his weapon of choice was the M-4, which he slung across his body with the barrel angled toward the ground to his left.  Although this position of the rifle put Evan in the potential crosshairs, Gabrielski bucked the sage advice of older veterans to carry it to the right.  He maintained that what was gained in safety paled in comparison to the speed and accuracy needed in an ambush.  When they first arrived in country, he had tried for several weeks to operate with his rifle cradled against his left shoulder, but never overcame the awkward discomfort of trying to twist and sight with his weaker side.  No, he argued, he was right-handed and would operate this weapon with his dominant and unusually accurate dominant side.  Left side or right side of the formation made no difference.  He’d do his job and do it right, a fact he had proved time and again in the past fifteen months.

Trailing behind Gabrielski , Kevin was the oldest member of Delta, aside from the sergeant.  At 25, he was only average looking as a soldier.  In fact, none of the squad looked the part of hardened warriors, certainly not as portrayed in blockbuster Hollywood pictures.  None were overly muscular, John Wayne wannabees, eager to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal, least of all Kevin.  His lean, almost skinny body looked to be more suited for accounting than soldiering, a deceptive appearance that he had found advantageous on more than one occasion when encountering others who might have reacted more aggressively toward a more menacing foe.  Faced with a diminutive and almost mousy figure, it was natural to underestimate the tenacity and controlled rage that he had learned to unleash at a moment’s notice.  This natural ability that had served him well in sports, developed and honed on the high school gridiron and hockey rinks.  And when the playing fields had been traded for the killing fields, the results were remarkably similar.

Tonight, his was the job of providing indirect fire for the squad, should they run into anyone unsavory.  An M203A1 grenade launcher, mounted underneath the barrel of his M-4 rifle, provided Kevin with the ability to drop 40mm high-explosive rounds onto the enemy from a distance of nearly to one and a half football fields.  In open terrain this was a formidable weapon, but he had quickly realized that in the dense urban city streets and in room-to-room searches, the launcher was little more than added weight.  In addition to the standard thirteen magazines of 5.56 mm ammunition for his M-4, he carried 36 grenade rounds spread evenly across his chest in a specially made ammunition vest.  But when he thought of the extra bulk, he found himself thankful for the warmth it provided on these cool nighttime missions.  The temperature difference between the desert day and night still amazed him after more than a year.

From the rear of the wedge formation, Sergeant Gassner quietly but effectively led the squad of scouts.  A fourteen-year veteran of the first Gulf War and a brilliant operational leader perfectly suited for balancing the rigors and demands of modern warfare with the personal touch of a supervisor who genuinely cared for his subordinates, he had suffered much during this his third deployment.  His first combat experience, Kevin knew, had been the easiest.  As a machine gunner assigned to the Army’s 3rd Armored Division throughout Operation Desert Storm, sporadic firefights during the 100-hour ground war provided all the glory any soldier had dreamt of as a teenager without any real danger.  And while Sergeant Gassner hadn’t envisioned ever returning to The Sandbox, the shock and awe of the initial push into Iraq in 2003 had also been accomplished with minimal personal angst.  A newly promoted sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, Gassner had felt both relieved and proud to return home with no casualties, aside from an unfortunate private who tore his ACL during an impromptu football game a month after the invasion.

This deployment, however, had been the worst for the most experienced soldier with Headquarters (HHC) Company, 1st Battalion of the 151st Infantry Brigade.  The IED that had torn through the squad’s hummer, metal shrapnel shredding Private First Class Anthony Spitello’s body and wounding Gabrielski and Evans in their third month in Baghdad, had shattered Sergeant Gassner’s illusion of invincibility as a leader.  Spitello had died almost instantly, and although both of the wounded soldiers had rejoined the squad within a month, the seasoned leader realized that this war would be different from the others.  Gone were the easy distinctions of good and evil, friend and foe.  To his Cold Warrior mindset, the hidden insurgency, relying more on booby traps and random sniper fire than frontal assaults and direct engagement, dripped of cowardice and dishonor.  It seemed that every week someone from the Brigade had been killed by the cleverly disguised devices which were most often detonated remotely just the American convoys passed, a statistic that exponentially increased the frustration, rage and eventual hopelessness of his soldiers. 

As the five soldiers slowly made their way along the dusty road toward the village that still stood a kilometer away, Kevin could sense that the team was not fully focused on the mission at hand, and no amount of reminding would change that.  No, even his own thoughts flitted back and forth from the mission to their upcoming redeployment home, reunions with families and spouses, nights of premeditated partying and carousing design less for the fun and more for forgetting everything they had faced in Iraq, and back to the mission.  He struggled with his own thoughts of Erin, as he marched forward through the darkness.  He imagined the homecoming party she had promised to throw, and the private celebration afterward with only her.  He shook his head in disgust.  The spiraling thoughts and emotions made it impossible to stay fully alert, he realized, saying a quick prayer to the Apache in the sky for luck to be on their side tonight.

In silence, the squad pressed forward in the dark.  In the distance, a dog barked.  Santori’s left hand shot up, signaling a halt to their advance.  All five soldiers froze in place before slowly sinking into the dust, most resting their weight on one knee. Quick glances by all of them to their wrist watches showed that they had been walking nearly thirty minutes.  Kevin did the math in his head, concluding that they had likely covered slightly more than a kilometer.  A few seconds later, another bark shattered the night air, but this time seemed muffled, cut short with a sound like a muted grunt.

“Whatcha got, Santori?” Sergeant Gassner’s voice whispered into their headsets.  A solitary drop of sweat trickled down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  He hoped his subordinates couldn’t hear the nervousness in his voice.

“Nada, Sarge,” from the darkness ahead, Santori answered. “Just a dog barking, but nothing visible.  And we’re downwind, so it couldn’t have smelled us.  And that last bark sounded like his owner shut him up.”  His head slowly moved back and forth, scanning the huts that showed up as dark green silhouettes through the night vision goggles.  Nothing moved.

“Roger that.  Just keep a look-out as we move forward.  Just take your time, though….there’s no rush tonight, okay?”

“Hooah,” whispered the point soldier.  Hunkering down in the groove made by some sort of farm vehicle that had probably swerved off the road during the rainy season, Santori waited and watched.  He wasn’t about to take any risks, not so close to the end of their tour.  Since taking over point position after Spitello’s death, he had a 100% success rate for the squad, by which he meant that he hadn’t lost a single soldier on 204 consecutive patrols.  It was a peculiar statistic that he had invented to stay motivated and alert while outside the wire.  It was also a figure that he kept to himself.  He wasn’t about to jinx the squad.   Only Kevin knew of the streak, the result of an open notepad left on his cot two days earlier while sprinting to the latrine with diarrhea.  When Santori returned, Kevin had been leaning over the notepad. He had asked the point man what the hash marks meant.  Santori had explained, but only after forcing the grenadier to promise not to reveal his secret to the others.  Thoughts of the streak buzzed in his mind as he crouched in the dust.

After five minutes, Santori was convinced that all was indeed quiet in the village ahead.  Only then did he hoist himself up, half-turning toward Evans and slowly wind-milling his arm to the others.  Forward, Infantry, he gestured, mimicking the statue that guarded the Sand Hill infantry training area of Ft. Benning, Georgia.  He watched as the group carefully rose to their feet, slightly crouching in the dark night air.  There was little cover out here in the open, a fact about which they were all acutely aware.

Turning back toward the village, the squad moved out in unison, careful to avoid scuffing their boots against the sandy soil.  On the off-chance that the dog had heard them, the scouts needed to be extra careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves. 

 Santori’s back was turned when, out of the corner of his eye, Sergeant Gassner saw Kevin’s body jerk.  After a millisecond of pondering this strange spasmodic movement, the unmistakable sound reached the soldiers. 

Crack!  A single shot rang out, the echo dissipating almost as quickly as it arrived.  As if in slow motion, the soldiers instinctively dropped to the dirt, faces pressed against the dusty earth, as if willing themselves to ooze into the rocks and rubble that littered the edge of the hard road.  Without hesitation, they began wildly returning fire, spraying the night air in panicked response.  Confusion about the location of the shooter was evident in the numerous arching tracers that blanketed a 180-degree arc in front of the scouts, angry glowing red lasers that bounced off rocks and momentarily lit the night sky.  Despite the deafening roar of the gunfire, a wet gurgling was heard over the scouts’ squad radio.  Kevin Strickland, his legs twisted awkwardly beneath his torso, lay still in the dry weeds that sprouted from the sides of the road.  Around his limp body, the sandy dirt slowly grew dark and sticky in an ever-widening circle.

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“How did that make you feel?” The deep voice resonated against the dark-grained wood paneling of the small room with an equally soothing and authoritative, almost paternal tone.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, describe for me what you feel when you think of that phone call.  How did you react when you heard it ring?  What emotions come to mind when you think of that night?”

Erin Dalton’s eyes were tightly shut, holding back the swelling tide of tears that pressed against the inner lids, threatening a flash flood down her trembling cheeks.  Don’t do it, she commanded herself.  Don’t you dare break down! Wait, wait…okay, now. That’s better. The tide ebbed.  Her pursed lips relaxed into the faintest of smiles, more felt than observable.  It was getting easier to suppress the waves of emotions, she realized, easier with every session.

In the shadows of the darkened office, her eyes cracked open just a slit and sensing no danger, slowly widened, revealing exhausted and bloodshot green eyes.  Focusing on the knotted wooden paneling on the far wall, she cautiously replied, “How would you feel if your phone rang unexpectedly in the middle of the night?”

Her therapist smiled, not entirely a friendly expression, but one of someone used to humoring such childish responses.  He wouldn’t give in, though.  “I guess I’d probably be pretty ticked, particularly if it was past my bedtime.  I don’t easily fall back to sleep.”  He paused before continuing, “So, how are you sleeping these days?”

“Alright, I guess,” Erin replied in a deadpanned voice. Please believe me, she silently begged.  She knew he wouldn’t, though.  He never did.

“How much sleep would you say that you typically get each night?” he prodded without missing a beat.  Silence stretched out for nearly a minute.  “Erin?” he said, a little too impatiently.

“Oh, what does it really matter?” snapped Erin. “Look, what do you want to hear?  That I’m still distraught over Kevin’s death?  That I pine my life away in hopes that this is all a dream and that one day I’ll wake up to find him lying beside me?  Or do you want me to say that I’m fully over everything, content with the lousy hand life has dealt me and that it’s been a learning experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world?”  Sarcasm dripped from her lips and she felt the warm, reddened flush of her cheeks glowing in the light of the amber lamp.  Her fists instinctively clenched and released, clenched and released.

The therapist said nothing and simply continued scribbling notes on his yellow steno pad.  She wondered what he was writing, although she probably could figure it out.  The silence was maddening.

Why do I let him get to me like this, she demanded, swallowing loudly.  Just play the game… just play the fucking game!

As if sensing a stalemate, the chirping of birds from the trendy natural sounds alarm clock signaled an end to the hour the way a bell separates two bruised and bloodied prizefighters.  Once again, what had started as a semi-productive therapy session had degenerated into anger and frustration.  Yet she’d be back in two weeks.  She knew it, as did he.  So, with a vaguely apologetic nod, she stood and quietly let herself out without another word, pausing at the front desk long enough to schedule another appointment.

She was satisfied.  Yes, she would tell her mother, she was still seeing Dr. Reynolds.  Yes, she would say, the sessions were definitely working, although she wasn’t about to explain how or why.  With luck, her mom would accept the update without much questioning.  That too was getting better.  The parental interrogations regarding her emotional fragility had been worst during the six months after Kevin’s death, but had grown steadily less frantic of late.  Yet, her chest still tightened and the pounding in her temples still grew more intense in the hour before the weekly phone calls home.  While that hadn’t changed, the recovery time had improved considerably.

Had it really been fourteen months, she wondered as the No. 3 bus pulled up to the curb and she hoisted herself aboard.  She slid into the second row.  A college-aged couple sat across from her, snuggling and giggling as their intimate whispers drifted through the front of the bus, barely audible like the sound of rustling leaves in the autumn afternoon.  Her face was toward the window, but in the reflection, she watched the pair of young lovers.  Her chest tightened and again she mentally cursed.  Fuck them, she thought.  A solitary drop of saltiness trickled down her cheek, but a quick shrug of her shoulder and the tear disappeared into the faded fabric of her sweatshirt.  Yanking on her hood, she hid her face.  Never again, she vowed. Never again.

By the time the bus pulled up to the corner of 10th Street and Fee Lane, the transformation was complete.  Gone were the visible sadness and pity, replaced by an expression of determination and seriousness uncommon even amongst her fellow graduate students.  For the 26-year old doctoral candidate, the return to school had been a godsend, a mental escape from the perpetual depression and self-pity that had scarred the past year.  She had resumed her studies with vigor and determination, which only somewhat spared her the frustrations that come from research and dissertation writing.  Isolation was known to be the most difficult part of a earning a Ph.D., she knew, but gone were the distractions of love and relationships.  At least that’s what she told herself, refusing to acknowledge the distractions that constantly tore her away from her research and writing, memories she could not erase.

She casually ascended the steps of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, or SPEA as it was known to its self-titled students, SPEANs.  Against the early evening sky, it was hard not to notice the only lighted office window in the building. Probably an untenured associate professor slaving away to complete that final published article that would all but guarantee job security on the faculty, she used to tell Kevin on those rare occasions when he had accompanied her to the library.  Even then, he had typically only lasted a short time before retreating home to his video games and movies.

Libraries hadn’t been his thing, or even books for that matter.  But Erin had been perfectly content being the intellectual half of the relationship.  In fact, that she was more educated and academically inclined was a matter of personal pride for her.  So, she had never pushed him to try grad school.  He had his hobbies and interests, and she had hers.  Accepting those differences was part of being in love, she recalled her mother once saying.  What a crock, she had expressed to Dr. Reynolds.  Love and acceptance only lead to pain and hurt.  Even the best relationship ends eventually, so who needs it?

Finding a seat in the nearly deserted library was easy.  For most, Saturdays were recovery days from nights of revelry and drinking games, not early morning therapy and dry research.  But she wasn’t like most.  She had been once, but those days had long past.  No, she thought as she settled into a hard library chair, I’m not like that anymore. This is where I belong. She looked around the empty library and smiled.  There was comfort in being alone, an internal pride in her efforts and dedication.  The next several hours would be productive, she knew.  Such was the case every week.

By the time the early afternoon swell of students began, Erin’s eyes burned and watered.  The smoke from the Dunn Meadow bonfire the night before had infiltrated her clothing and hair, saturating them with a sweet burnt aroma, vaguely reminiscent of childhood and camping trips with her father.  She hadn’t bothered washing away the smell from her body, but at least her outfit was clean.  It wasn’t the lingering smoke that bothered her now, though.  Four hours perched before the glowing laptop screen created the unpleasantly familiar eye strain and contributed to the dull ache that pulsed inward from each temple.

Pushing away from the table slightly, her thoughts returned to the night before.  She wasn’t sure why she had bothered with the pep rally at any rate.  Clearly, she hadn’t intended to do more than merely skirt Dunn Meadow on her way home, but something about that scene had made her pause.  Perhaps it was the festive excitement rampant in the wood-lined field that had stirred reminiscences of her undergraduate years.  Or possibly it was merely the inquisitive opportunity to people-watch that had piqued her interest.  She was certain that the appeal was not contained in the actual celebration at hand.  Her interest in sports had long ago waned, and homecoming hooplas had always seemed somewhat pointless.  Shrugging, she acknowledged to herself that indeed, she could come up with no plausible explanation for stopping other than the hypnotic warmth and crackling of the bonfire which radiated to the very edge of Fifth Avenue.  That had been wonderful, reminding her of camping trips as a little girl and later with Kevin.

Stop it, her internal voice chided her. Stop dwelling.  I’m not dwelling.  Yes, you are.  No, I’m reminiscing.  There is a difference.  Whatever…get back to work.

With her left hand, she gently massaged her forehead.  She was exhausted.  She knew that, but had in the past year come to accept permanent fatigue as a constant in her life.  It was one of the main concerns of Dr. Reynolds, she knew.  He was always harping about her sleep habits, even suggesting over-the-counter sleeping pills.  But that was something she wouldn’t do.  The occasional glass or two of wine before bed was one thing, but drugs, even legal and non-prescription aids, made her uneasy.  Nope, she would deal with life in a slight haze. Besides, she thought, that’s why there’s a coffee stand upstairs.  The mobile Java Joe’s was a favorite for SPEA’s sleep deprived residents, and she was the number one customer.

“Ahhh!”  The piercing shriek jolted Erin’s conscience, just as an intense burning sensation spread across her upper thigh.  Her own guttural response echoed the first yell, which she later realized had been intended as a tardy warning from the student across the table.  A torrent of mottled latte plummeted off the edge of the table and directly onto her legs.  Erin leapt to her feet, succeeding only in diverting the continuing flow of liquid directly onto her laptop.  She shrieked even louder.

“Oh, shit!” she yelled, grabbing the nearest absorbent material and thrusting it into the river of hot beverage.  She frantically pressed it against the laptop’s vulnerable surface, where liquid was already pooling between many of the keys.  As the flow ebbed, Erin’s eyes shifted to the blue fleece jacket in her hands.  It looked brand new, or it would have if not for the dripping, brown stain that now soaked it.  Her eyes moved in slow motion, from the sopping outer garment to its owner, who aside from the pointless warning had yet to move at all.  A hand covered his gaping mouth, horror apparent in his wide, unblinking eyes.  Looking back to the jacket, Erin felt her stomach churn.  In a barely audible voice, she whispered, “I am so sorry…”

“Are you kidding?” he stammered, the fear disappearing from his eyes with almost unnatural speed.   “Seriously, are you kidding?”

“Look, I just panicked and grabbed the nearest….”

“Hey,” he interrupted in a quiet, but firm voice, “I’m more worried about your computer than this ridiculous coat!  Why should you be sorry?  I’m the idiot!”

“What?  I mean…your coat looks new.  I just thought…”

“Don’t worry about it.  So, now it’s broken in.  Here, give it to me,” he said, reaching out for the half soaked jacket and proceeding to use it to sop up more of the pooled coffee that remained on the table.

As she watched him clean the last of the mess, she spoke in a low tone. “You know, I think this is why they require coffee lids in the library.  There’s a sign by the front door, you know.”

He didn’t answer, but gestured toward the far corner of the table.  Her eyes followed the motion of his arm past the tip of his finger.  There, conspicuously distant from the overturned Styrofoam cup, lay a pristine, white plastic coffee lid.

“Oh…”

“Yeah, but no where on the sign did it say that the top had to be on the cup,” he pointed out.

She watched his face intently, not sure whether or not the stranger was being serious.

He continued, “Don’t they know to make rules for the lowest common denominator?”  When she didn’t respond immediately, he added, “That would be me…the lowest comm….”

“Yeah, I understood what you were saying,” she interrupted.  Don’t patronize me, her glare said it all.  Somehow being glib and sarcastic seemed hardly appropriate in the situation, she thought as her attention returned to the laptop.  Pressing the power switch, she waited for it to shut off before pressing the button again.  With a flicker and hum, the computer slowly came back to life, whirring through its standard booting process.  Everything looked intact, so far anyway.

“Is it alright?” he inquired, leaning across the table toward her and straining to see for himself.  The slight smell of cologne drifted across the table, and the hairs on Erin’s neck tingled.  It was the vaguely sweet scent of Polo, and to her it screamed of Kevin.  For years, she had mercilessly teased him about his sophomoric choice of cologne’s.  But now it seemed anything but juvenile.  Glancing up sharply, she eyes locked with the stranger across the table.  He quickly looked down, but in that second, Erin was momentarily paralyzed.  She caught her breathe and her heart pounded against her ribcage like a violent and out of control drum fill.   Something wasn’t right.

Get out! Her mind screamed as the dim light of the library seemed to close in around her, crushing fear gripping her mind as her hands clawed for the laptop and backpack.  Spinning around with a muffled grunt, her soul a stricken beast trapped and terrified of death in the jaws of a predator.  She ran.

Tripping madly over chairs in her way, she careened toward the library door, a pinprick of light in her darkening vision, an escape.  Twenty feet away…ten feet away…five now.  Almost there, her thoughts sputtered.  She blindly lunged toward the middle of the door, where the handle should be.  Instead, her arm collided with yielding flesh and she was briefly aware of a pained yelp as she barreled over a human obstacle and flung herself into the warmth of the sunlight, her feet pounding wildly atop the brick walk that separated SPEA from the Kelley School of Business.

Not until she had descended the stairs leading to the back parking lot did her feet slow, but even then only slightly.  Her breath wheezed from her chest like the sound of a balloon losing air.  Squeezing between a parked motorcycle and a Nissan Pathfinder, she quickly traversed the asphalt before coming to a rest against a large oak that guarded the darkened corner of the lot.  Her gasps had subsided only slightly, and she found herself hugging the old tree, her arms wrapped around its trunk and her fingers caressing the deep grooves of bark.  Her face was wet from tears that had started at some point, flowing freely and unimpeded from the reservoirs behind her eyelids.

What the hell was that all about? Her thoughts swirled madly and a sickening heat spread quickly over her face and down her neck.  Are you a fucking freak? Idiot! How the hell are you going to ever go back to the library now? You fool!

With her body still pressed against the oak and nearly hidden in the shadows by its arched limbs, she glanced past the parked cars that filled the lot to capacity.  There, standing at the base of the stairs, stood the young man.  Inching further to her left, she hid her thin body behind the trunk and slowly crouched down in the weeds until only half of her head remained visible.  Even from sixty yards away she could see his eyes searching methodically from left to right with determined and haunting intensity.  As his scan passed her hiding spot, they seemed to pause momentarily before resuming their path to the dumpsters at the far edge of the property.  Then, shaking his head slowly, he turned and trudged up the steps and back toward the library, his body and finally his head disappearing from sight.

Erin’s breath released with a loud whoosh and she slowly relaxed.  She did not move, though, choosing instead to remain firmly planted in the shadows of the trees and bushes.  It would be another five minutes before she cautiously headed down the nearby path, crossed the train tracks and headed west past the throngs of Hoosier fans gathering for the afternoon’s gridiron showdown with Purdue University.  But the swelling sea of crimson and cream, interspersed with black and gold helmeted Boilermaker fans, was lost on Erin, who stumbled along in a daze, bewildered by her uncontrolled egress from the library.  She’d had panic attacks before, but never like this.  Between the whiff of cologne and his peculiar expression when their eyes met, the bile still burned the back of her throat.

For the first time, the urge to talk was greater than the fear of exposure, and she suddenly longed for another therapy session.  She wanted Dr. Reynold’s advice.  She needed answers, and fast!

Reaching into her backpack as she walked, she found her cell phone.  Dr. Reynolds’s number was on speed dial, and with a few flicks of her thumb, she heard ringing on the other end of the line.  Perhaps he had some openings.  She hoped so.

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