by Megan Sandberg
My instinct was to leave. I did, at first. I got out of my car and sped across the parking lot into the lobby of a Marriott Hotel. Keeping my swollen eyes away from the receptionists, I scurried in my Target flip-flops, disgracing the pristine linoleum accustomed to Jimmy Choos.
I raced towards the first sign I saw, hoping it would direct me toward the bathroom. My contact lenses were fuzzy from the tears, so I had to get up close to see the word, “Restrooms.” An arrow pointed in the opposite direction. I kept my head down and rushed toward the familiar lady in the dress.
My instinct was to vomit. But I also really had to pee. I decided to relieve myself first, flush, then turn around and stick two fingers down my throat. Worried about germs, I covered my fingers with my sweatshirt sleeve, then shoved them toward my gag reflux. Even though I had just eaten at the Souplantation at the other end of the parking lot, I couldn’t get anything to come up. God, I just wanted to vomit. I wanted to feel completely empty — of everything. He couldn’t even grant me that. After a few more unsuccessful attempts, I turned around and sat on the toilet lid. My hand grabbed at the toilet paper dispenser, and I suddenly wanted to pray for the first time in years. I think I felt the need because I was hyperventilating enough to faint; I couldn’t distinguish my breath from the blast of the air conditioning vent. I looked up, pleading with Him. Please, tell me what to do. Stop this feeling.
But he was waiting in the car.
Leaving him would’ve been the easy way out. I knew it was the easy way out because a lot of other people would’ve left. Once, when I was in a novel-writing workshop, I based my fictitious story on my own life. The conversations and events in my book were all constructed, but the one-line premise rang true: a girl in her first relationship with a Marine who struggled with PTSD and the remnants of an ex-wife. I didn’t tell anyone it was based on reality because I didn’t want to explain which parts were or weren’t fictionalized. This gave people the freedom to judge the protagonist: “Why did she even go out with him again when he said he was divorced? I would’ve left right then!” or “I just want to tell her, ‘oh honey, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Keep fishin.’”
I remember laughing, shrugging it off. I tried to shake the eerie feeling after class, reminding myself they did not know him, or us. Back then, I thought the biggest obstacles Jordan and I had were in my own head: I needed to get over my jealousy of the ex-wife; I needed to get over his judgmental father. In the space between a Marriott Hotel and a Souplantation, those seemed inconsequential.
He asked if I was okay the second I got back in the car. I’ve accepted my own moral failure by never answering this question honestly. I lied and said yes, then continued to cry. I felt like there was a vertical, metal bar in my stomach. It had hooked onto a valve of my heart, pulling it down every few seconds to cause an audible reaction.
My pain gave way to a flash of anger. “How else do you expect me to react?”
I knew I could never fathom what he had seen on his two deployments. But hearing the images from someone you love sears them in your mind. Knowing he had witnessed atrocities we skimmed over in war novels throughout high school caused an electrocution of pain. If I felt nauseous by merely hearing it, how had he survived seeing it? And here he was, asking if I was okay.
Once, he told me in boot camp they made the aspiring Marines watch videos of beheadings and torture sessions. A crash course on desensitization. How could he know how jarring it was for the sensitizedwhen he was trained never to flinch?
He rarely tells me graphic information, probably for this reason. It only surfaces when I squeeze it out at the very end of an argument, like a stubbornly infected blemish. These arguments are usually started by a joke or comment about politics, and I judge him for only being a feminist, not an angry feminist. We circle and circle each other, not realizing we’re in the same ring until the end. Tonight, it started with a joke about reclaiming language. He saw me making a pussy-hat for the Women’s March and I explained it symbolized the reclamation of the word “pussy” after Trump’s infamous line. He joked, “Did he steal it?”
I stared at the wheel as my fingers touched the same strand of pink yarn again and again.
I still hadn’t figured out how to knit. But it gave me something for my hands to do, an excuse for my eyes to look away from his. I hoped with each stitch I would become more articulate, and be more capable to prove, prove, prove. I was on the left, but I had to be right. He was in the middle, trying to bridge both sides, so I played for the defense.
At the forty-five-minute mark of our conversation, when I kept justifying and explaining, he said he shouldn’t have joked. He should’ve “just kept his damn mouth shut.”
I didn’t entirely disagree, so I kept quiet.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. I knew the gesture; it was a request to his body: please don’t let me cry.
“I don’t mean to make fun of what you’re doing, because I love that you’re doing this and trying to change the world,” he said, gulping for a breath. “I do. But for some reason I saw that yarn and thought of this yellow ribbon a few other Marines and I gave to this five-year-old girl.
She put it in her hair. And on her fifth birthday…,” he trailed off, his words replaced by a choking sound.
I was not supposed to know what happened to this girl, or what country she was from.
But he didn’t need to worry about breaking his non-disclosure agreement because I knew I would never tell anyone. I wouldn’t curse anyone else with her fate because what happened to this girl warranted my reaction. I kicked open the door of my dumb American car, sped away in my dumb American flip-flops to the nearest door I saw, and landed in the blindingly lit lobby of the dumb American rich.
I hate when people ask him, “But you didn’t really see any combat, right? Like you were just there in case something happened?” I watch as a microsecond of pain scatters his face, then, to protect them, he tells them they’re right. Little do they know of the lacerations whipped into his mind, branded in the skull no one can touch.
For Valentine’s Day (I requested we get each other “funny gifts”), he got me pillowcases that said “Big Spoon” and “Little Spoon.” He took the “Little Spoon” one. It’s a joke between us since he’s eight inches taller than me, but I’ve realized sometimes “spooning” is all I can do. After talking to him and poking around on different medical websites, I learned PTSD inhibits your ability to respond to stimuli. Therefore, blocking out stimuli — closing your eyes, pulling your hood over your head — can be helpful. Once, when we were lying in his bed together, talking, we heard footsteps from a roommate down the hall. I’m not sure if it was his shoes, but the acoustics made it sound like the footsteps were right in Jordan’s room. I froze for a second, looked up, then relaxed, knowing my ears merely tricked me. Jordan froze for much longer, his pupils dilating in terror.
“That gave me a heart attack,” he said, his six-foot figure suddenly scrunching into a fetal position. His breathing became erratic.
“Do you want me to spoon you?” I asked, never imagining I would ask that question in such a serious tone. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then flipped over so his back was facing me. He grabbed at my wrist, almost desperately, and put it on top of his rapidly beating heart. I kissed his faded haircut until his breathing slowed and knew that for as many reasons as I was supposed to meet him, he was also supposed to meet me.
I know he’s not apathetic about the struggles of women in America. He randomly claimed his feminist status on our third date over hot dogs, and he’s always supported my Women’s Studies, even tagging along to a Reproductive Justice panel and answering more audience questions than me. But, I can imagine, once you’ve seen ubiquitous violence against women in a less privileged country, our American concerns can become material for a joke.
Another time he spoke of his deployment, he recalled witnessing a woman get beaten with sticks by her husband on top of a hill. He asked his superiors if he could do something.
They said no; it wasn’t worth the consequences. Watching the slight droop of his neck, I realized how much this killed him.
The “fictional” novel I started in January was a snapshot of a few emotions I couldn’t process. By dramatizing them, I felt justified in my anger or jealousy. It was not a fair account of my relationship, but a way to rid myself of a few hurtful moments.
That night, running into the hotel, I found myself again swallowed by a wave of fear and frustration. I wasn’t thinking about how many times he made me laugh or collected my tears on the tip of his finger. Everything washed away under one staggering shell of pain.
But I still got back in the car. Because Jordan did not cause my reaction that night. I reacted that way because I imagined the girl with the yellow ribbon. Because I knew he had to relive that sight every day. Because he told me he felt like an alien, and no one would ever understand what he had gone through. He said sometimes he wanted to quit smiling for once and shout, “I am not okay.” That is why I ran. That is why my whole body wept. Because I could never abolish his pain.
He looked out the window and apologized for his “moment of weakness:” his diminutive
burst of crying about the girl.
I said as sternly as I could muster: “Don’t ever apologize to me for crying.”
After a few minutes of silence, he took my hand. “I would go through everything again,” he said, looking down. “I would go through all of it again if it meant meeting you. And not even to date you. If it meant I could have just met you once.”
I closed my eyes, shaking. I thought this statement was the greatest profession of love I’d ever heard. More importantly, I thought I didn’t deserve it.
Later that night, we went to the grocery store, and he kissed my swollen eyes and went back to teasing me as usual. Passing the healthcare section, he shouted, “What cream did you need for that rash again?” to the amusement of a middle-aged man standing nearby. I shook my head, trying to suppress my smile. Then I looked up at his pained yet hopeful eyes and felt another choke in my throat. But this one did not lead to tears. This one reminded me I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Fortunately, the feeling was just as powerful as the pain.
About the Author:
Megan Sandberg works as a Communications Coordinator at a school for gifted children in Seattle, WA, and continues to pursue creative nonfiction when not running or boxing. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Open Minds Quarterly. She holds a BA in Screenwriting and a minor in Women’s Studies from Chapman University.