He has the Look. He’s tall, wiry, and explosive. And he has the Look in his eyes.
I see it again later up close when I give him a couple of t-shirts. Like a deer in the headlights, but something else, too. Shocked, surprised, scared, and angry. Very angry.
Shocked and surprised at the creeping realization that what he’d experienced was going to be with him forever. Scared about what it could do to him. And angry about it. He’d never considered all this before; he’d believed he was invincible.
We didn’t talk about anything specific right then, so I don’t remember what led to me holding out a coin in the palm of my outstretched hand.
“I didn’t get a single fucking coin,” he says bitterly, looking at it. “Some guys got tons of ‘em. I got a Purple Heart, but I’m not proud of it.”
I continue to hold out my hand with the coin. I say nothing as we look at each other.
Finally, slowly, he takes my hand.
“Man, my nicotine level is getting low, “ I say, turning away. “I gotta go out for a smoke.”
“Yeah, good idea. I’ll come with you.”
Outside, in the dark and the fog and the rain, it all comes out.
The things he’d seen, the things he’d done. The things he claimed he could never tell anyone who hadn’t been there.
Most of all about his friend, who cried as he lay mortally wounded.
“Don’t let me die… please, don’t let me die… “
“I mean, I’m probably going to hear that for the rest of my fucking life!”
He’s angry again. The true grief over his friend’s death is yet to come. For now, he’s realizing what this has done to him. That he’s changed now.
He doesn’t want to be changed.
Usually, I just listen, inserting a casual, "That sucks, man" or a "That's fucked up, dude" at appropriate intervals. Like what they're talking about is the most normal thing in the world, which it is. For them.
And they sure as hell don’t need me telling them how they should feel.
But he’s asking me to say something now, with his eyes. He wants me to say it will go away.
“Yeah, you probably are going to hear him for the rest of your life. That's how it should be. Don't push him away. “
Not what he expects or wants to hear, but he’s still listening. Waiting.
“I think everything we experience becomes part of us, whether we want it or not. I dunno, but with stuff like that it's usually better to embrace it. It’s part of you now.”
He thinks about that for a minute, then asks, "You mean kinda like a tatt?"
The following day. We practically bump into each other, literally. He’s not in Civilian, because he’s got appointments at the hospital.
“You look handsome in your uniform.”
This is not a flirt, nor is it a mother/son thing. Neither of us is smiling as we look at each other.
Handsome. Not a Monster; not Broken. Uniform. A Soldier; a Man.
An eternity unfolds, then collapses back to the present. Only a few seconds have passed.
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
We go our separate ways.
Later, I’m drinking a hot chocolate in the lobby before I go. He comes in, but instead of just walking through he takes a seat on the other side of the room when he sees me.
There’s a loose togetherness in the relatively small room. The two Soldiers playing pool, the CQ at the desk, a couple of guys sitting at the computers on the other side. Him. Me.
He’s going home tomorrow, and I can tell he’s practicing. Figuring out if he’s ready for the World. Testing how it feels to be (kind of) in public with a civilian female his Mom’s age.
It feels ok.
Another Soldier goes over to him, says something, and he laughs. For the first time, I see the smile reach his eyes. And for the first time, I see the boy inside the man.
I get up, walk over to him on my way out and say, “Ok, I’m leaving now – gimme a hug!”
He jumps up and holds out his arms.