After I came back from my second tour of duty, that’s when things fell apart with her. She left. Or I left. It doesn’t really matter which.
It was because I couldn’t explain. Even in therapy, even recounting, writing journals, writing fiction, writing speeches, I could not explain. Or no one else could understand, not through listening, or tv spots, or reading newspaper clippings. You had to have been there, or you just couldn’t understand. Some things you can know, but never Know until you’ve been there.
The desert is like that. You can’t know the actual weight of a rifle or the feel of sweat soaking the canvas uniform under the straps of your pack, of how heavy that rifle is, but isn’t, because you are used to it now, like your own limbs, looking over the sandy flats while the heat makes waves in the cloudless, pale sky. You can’t know that. You can see it, and you can imagine it, but you don’t know it, because you don’t know how tired you should feel, how impatient you are for Pete to hurry the fuck up and drink from the well already, fill the canteens, Jesus Christ, this isn’t any 9-5 with a half hour lunch break. Shut the fuck up, Pete is saying between gulps of hot water from the spring. I’m coming. And you’re patient, too, because it’s hot. It’s more than hot. It’s heat reflecting from the white, bleached-out sand and rock, because the flats are a sun-mirror, and you’re living on Venus. You have to be patient, because it’s too hot to do anything but stand, and wait for Pete, and sweat under your straps, holding your rifle, watching the horizon, living with that steady hum of fear of what is about to come from that birthing-line between flats and sky. You are tense. You want to go.
But it’s also too hot, you’re too heart-tired, too sore from waiting and too sore from the hole that mortar created inside of you last week. It’s too hot to think about last week. It’s too hot for you or Pete to think about where the mortar landed, fifty feet from you, you, and him, and the squad, tucked away inside your tent, sleeping. Then you were up, there was fire, there was shouting, rifles reattached to limbs, but when you left your tent, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, littered with still smoldering bits of –Oh. My. God.
And now there is a hole inside you. And Pete. And everyone. Hurry the fuck up, you tell Pete. You both know damn well not to be out in the open this long. You want to go now. But you need to be patient. That’s the way of the desert.
It’s hot, and I’m coming back to myself on the front porch, looking at a street in East Pittsburgh, where a block away two shirtless kids are screaming and playing in a fire hydrant, which is spouting into the street. I’m here. She’s not here. And I’ve got a hole.
I think about Pete. I wonder how he is. I might call him later, ask how his holiday was. But I won’t ask how he is.
There will be fireworks tonight. They sound like mortars. And I will have no one on my porch to watch them with, if I watch them.
And that is really nobody’s fault at all.