Some mornings are better than others.
I don’t wake up feeling his hands wrapped around my neck. I don’t hear him yelling in a different language. Instead, it’s quiet and all I hear is my own breathing, birds singing outside my window, and my baby saying the sweetest word. Mama.
Some mornings, I know everything is going to be okay.
I reach for my phone and check the time. Almost eight, which means the repair shop next door will be rattling away very soon.
In the next room, Tyler is waking up, talking to himself. If I don’t get out of bed in the next ten minutes, he’ll probably try to climb out of his crib like he does most mornings. He’s strong, like his father. Stubborn, too, and his father’s friends sure had a blast playing with him yesterday at the cemetery. I’m glad they took the time to show up for his birthday; he would have turned 34. He would have loved seeing them again.
I get out of bed and stretch, a series of sun salutations to get myself warmed up. It’s been my routine since Tyler was born, a little moment to myself before the craziness of the day begins.
Before Tyler, the day would have started out waking up in bed with Drew, a warm snuggle and a wish that his day would be amazing. Then I’d slip out of bed and into the shower to get ready for work, followed by a quick breakfast and a kiss goodbye. Sometimes I’d take my breakfast to go. Kindergarten kids didn’t have time to wait and I couldn’t afford to be late. But all that was before the nightmares became more frequent, before the flashbacks brought back the ghosts he thought he’d left behind in a faraway land so long ago. That was before I woke up with his hands wrapped around my neck and I had to make the hardest decision of my life.
Some mornings, it’s hard accepting the life that could have been is gone forever.
Ten salutations later, I go through my phone and check my calendar. Two more apartments to visit in the afternoon and a blind hope that one of them will approve my application. But before all that, I need to get Tyler ready for Reading Hour at the library and then a trip to Palos Verdes to visit his father.
The first of many sounds from the repair shop breaks through my thoughts: the steel gates sliding open followed by the loud voices of the mechanics greeting each other. Someone turns on the radio to some talk show about government conspiracies and they start to talk, shouting above the radio and later, they’ll be shouting above the sound of pneumatic pumps and engines running. I set my phone down on the bedside table and sigh.
Some mornings, you just have to keep going.
I didn’t forget the beer.
It’s too damn early to start drinking but this one’s for him so it doesn’t matter. He’s buried beneath the shade of some tree I can’t name so I can hang out for as long as I want—or until my flight to Albuquerque in seven hours. I even bought one of those white plastic chairs to sit on while I visit him. Less than ten bucks and it’s all I need to sit here and reminisce about the good old days.
I wonder what the guys talked about yesterday, the day I should have been here instead of Riyadh where I was working. Probably all the shit we did back in Afghanistan, but only if Drew’s widow and his parents weren’t there. I don’t think they’d appreciate hearing about the things we did anyway—the adrenaline pumping as we got ready for every patrol despite the dread of knowing we wouldn’t come back to the despair we felt when we’d lose a brother to an IED or enemy fire followed by the thirst to get some. They wouldn’t get it. Civilians hardly ever did.
You had to be there to understand what we’re talking about, the shit we went through and the dichotomy of war once you’re back in the real world. It’s what makes coming back to civilian life so difficult for some. You want to talk about it but you can’t, not to them. So you seek out your brothers until you tell yourself you can’t do it anymore.
PTS fucking D.
I finish my beer and crumple it in my hand. I’m tempted to drink the beer I set on the ground in front of his gravestone but that would be disrespectful. He was my best friend, the battle buddy I failed to protect.
“Why didn’t you call me, man?” I mutter under my breath, feeling my frustration building. I know I should leave. After all, what else is there to say? He’s dead and he certainly can’t hear me. Not anymore.
But I don’t leave. I continue staring at his headstone before dropping my head, my forearms resting on my knees. I take a deep breath and blow air through my mouth, trying to center myself as the memories come flooding in, the sights and sounds of the harsh desert and the people who didn’t want us there to the deafening boom that changed everything, Death picking his victims for the day. Some went fast like Smith and Jonas, while some, it seems, were given a reprieve—like Drew. In his case, four years.
“Man, I miss our talks.” I lean back in my plastic chair. Drew and I were members of a sniper unit sent to accompany an infantry platoon in Northern Afghanistan. He was on his first deployment and I was on my third. After I left, he used to call at the oddest hours of the night because of the time difference. I was already living in Taos, New Mexico then and before leaving the Marines two years ago, Drew was stationed in Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. I didn’t mind his calls; Drew was funny, sometimes downright hysterical.
Until one day he wasn’t.
What’s done is done, Villier. Pay your respects and go home.
But I don’t leave. I continue staring at the headstone, remembering the times Drew and I hung out, the things we talked about, and the shit we went through in Afghanistan when we were deployed five years earlier. We’d become close, like brothers, and just weeks before we were to return home, our Humvee got hit by an IED. I still remember the moment it happened—the boom that changed everything—Drew pulling me out and winching that tourniquet tight around my leg where shrapnel tore right through. Years later, pieces of that damn shrapnel embedded in my skin still set off airport detectors. I laugh about it now though I wasn’t laughing then.
I’m so lost in my thoughts that I don’t notice the woman walking up the hill until she’s ten feet away. She’s holding a flowering plant in one hand and cradling a baby in a sling with the other. It takes me a moment to let the sight of her sink in. Alma Thomas, Drew’s wife.
No, his widow.
She’s lost weight since I last saw her at the funeral a year ago, and she looks almost vulnerable except for the familiar intensity in her hazel eyes. A swirl of emotions hits me then—anger that she never told me anything about Drew’s problems, sorrow for everything she’s been through since he killed himself—and as she leans toward me to give me a light hug, a fierce surge of emotion that I refuse to name.
“Hey, Alma,” I mutter as she leans forward and gives me a light kiss on the cheek. She smells faintly of vanilla and roses. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Nice to see you made it after all, even if you’re a day late. What about you? How are you doing?”
“Good,” I reply. “Sorry I couldn’t make it yesterday. My boss and I got in this morning.”
Alma sets her diaper bag on the grass. “Late or not, I’m glad you’re here. It was crazy busy yesterday with his friends showing up, but it was nice seeing everyone remember him.“
“Did the guys behave themselves, at least?”
“They did. I’m sure they let loose after we left.” Alma replies. “Oh, have you met this little guy? Tyler Jonathan Thomas. He’ll be a year old in a month. Ty, this is your daddy’s best friend, Sawyer.”
Tyler looks at me as he chews on a toy giraffe. Blond hair, blue eyes, a wide mouth, he doesn’t seem as interested in me as he is on his toy. “He looks just like his dad.”
“He does, doesn’t he?” Alma says as we make our way to Drew’s grave. “Did you just get here?”
“Nah, been here about half an hour,” I reply as she retrieves a blanket from her diaper bag. “Ah, here. Let me arrange that.”
As I spread out the blanket, she pulls out a black plastic trash bag. “The guys helped me clean up yesterday but I remembered we’re only allowed three things per space. I have to take two of the plants home and get rid of the rest of the flowers.”
“May I help?“
“That would be awesome.” She hands me the trash bag and lowers herself on the blanket next to Tyler. “So are you going back to work after this?”
“Nah, I’m off. This is where my boss and I split ways. He still has business here for the rest of the week but I’m heading back to Albuquerque in the afternoon,” I say, getting down on my haunches. “Which of these plants do you want to take home?”
She points to the yellow chrysanthemums and a mini-rose bush as Tyler grabs her arm and pulls himself up. “Two of the parents in Ty’s Reading Hour at the library want those two.”
“Aren’t you keeping them?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t have a garden anymore. I live in an apartment now. At least, for the time being.”
“I just found that out after I drove by your old house thinking you were still living there.” I cut the trash bag into two pieces large enough to wrap each pot in. “Why didn’t you tell me what was going on with him? Really going on with him?”
This time my tone is serious and—unintentionally—accusing. The three of us have been friends for the last six years and it’s not as if Alma and I haven’t called each other before. Whenever Drew was deployed, I would stop by to help her around the house—clear the rain gutters, fix a garage door, or paint the guest room.
Alma’s voice falters and she looks away. “He didn’t want anyone to know.”
My annoyance surfaces before I can control myself. “Oh, come on, Al. I could have helped. You know I would have done anything for Drew.”
“Of course, I know that,” she snaps. “But you did try, Sawyer, and look what happened. He pushed you away. He pushed everyone away so don’t come here expecting me to take all the blame like everyone expects me to.”
I look at her in surprise. “I’m not blaming you. And I had no idea everyone else was.”
“Take a number and wait in line,” she says, her eyes flashing angrily.
“I had no idea.”
“Well, now you do.”
The silence that follows is deafening, broken only by Tyler holding up his plastic giraffe. She plants a kiss on his forehead and I see her lower lip quiver. Regret fills me instantly and I look away. I didn’t mean to be so angry but it’s as if all the emotions that I’ve kept in check since I found out about Drew’s suicide have come rushing out like a dam finally breaking.
“Oh, God, Al, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“Look, forget it,” she says, clearing her throat. “None of this is going to change anything. It’s not going to bring him back. He didn’t tell you. He didn’t tell anyone and it’s not like the therapist at the VA was going to announce it to everyone if he showed up for his appointments or not. There is a thing called patient privacy, after all, and being his wife didn’t exempt me from that. I could only go by what he told me.”
Now I feel like a certified ass. “I really am sorry, Al. I shouldn’t have accused you like that. I was out of place.” When she doesn’t answer, I continue. “Look, can we talk about this over coffee? We don’t have to talk about Drew but just… just stuff.” I’m rambling but there’s no excuse for my rudeness and while coffee isn’t going to magically erase what I’d just said, I want to hit the Reset button and start over. I want to know that she’s okay.
Alma doesn’t answer right away. She takes a deep breath and sighs. “There’s a diner about three miles from here, just down the hill. They’re known for their pancakes. You can meet me there.”
I know the place she’s talking about; I drove past it on the way to the cemetery. “That sounds great.”
“I was about to call you anyway,” she adds. “I found a box with your name on it the other day and I guess Drew left it for you. I was going to mail it but it’s been awhile and I needed to make sure you still had the same PO box.”
“It’s the same, yes, but I’m here now. I can pick it up and save you the postage.”
A gust of wind blows a lock of hair in front of her face and she tucks it behind her ear. “I didn’t want to cut your visit short. If you’d like to visit awhile, go ahead.”
I pick up the beer cans. “I was done.”
“I’m not going to take long,” she says. “If you want, you can follow me there.”
“I can take the pots to your car, if you’d like.”
“That would be great. I’ll meet you down there in a few minutes.” Alma hands me the keys and I make my way to her SUV, placing the pots behind the driver’s seat, making sure they don’t topple.
I almost head back up toward her but figure I’ll wait until she returns to her car. I head to my car, walking past a bench where I could sit and look at the scenery around me while I wait till she’s done, but I don’t. Instead, I unlock the door and sit behind the wheel.
After relaying my condolences to Alma a year ago, I never thought I’d see her again. And with Drew gone, there was no reason to keep in touch with her. There’s also that unspoken code of not getting close to your best friend’s widow. It’s just there. You just don’t do it.
Still, that’s not what’s bothering me for I could care less about what other people thought. Right now, as I watch Alma kneel in front of Drew’s grave with Tyler in her arms, I’m angry at Drew for throwing away what he had. I’m angry at what he must have put her through after he pulled the trigger.
But there’s another feeling that I’ve never allowed myself to face until now, and as I watch her touch his headstone, it hits me hard. Jealousy and shame.
For I’m jealous of what Drew had—Alma’s love. And I’m ashamed for feeling the way I do for my best friend’s wife.