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     “I can’t do this anymore.” 

     My wife choked on a sob. 

     “I clearly can’t be what he needs, so I need to set him free and let him find whatever or whoever it is that can help.” 

     Our therapist shifted uncomfortably before gesturing she should continue.

     “My sweet husband is intensely loyal, so the only way I can free him is to request a divorce.”

     There was a ringing in my ears, similar to what I’d heard when the IED went off, and I couldn’t help the vivid images that flashed through my mind: the truck lying on its side, a gaping hole torn through it. 

     Smoke and flames and the sounds of men injured and dying.

     “This seems like a change of heart since our last session, Claire,” the therapist said gently, and I looked across the eighteen inches separating my wife and me. It may as well have been an ocean, for all the distance between us.

     “This has been a long time coming,” Claire responded in her sweet, clear voice, swallowing down her emotions. “We’ve been doing this for years, twice a week. Where has it gotten us? My husband still wants nothing to do with me.”

     That wasn’t exactly true.

     The therapist looked surprised. Claire was a people pleaser and didn’t contradict anyone, not ever, or put her foot down like this.

     “Are you saying you’ve given up?” 

     I was ready for this guy to shut the hell up.

     Claire drew in a deep, shaky breath and I realized how close to tears she really was. 

     The last three years had broken my wife.

     “I’m saying that I have no more hope. I’ll never stop loving Michael,” she looked over at me, but she didn’t make a move to touch me, “but I can’t live like this anymore.”

     Her deeply painful admission cracked inside my chest and spilled something hot; liquid hurt that flooded through me and started to fill up in my eyes. I’d never known a life without Claire, not since I was seventeen. We’d been together for over three decades and had two beautiful kids. Claire was my forever.

     Was my forever, because now she was throwing in the towel.

     “I recommend we continue talking this through.” Wallace’s voice grated on my nerves. “We’ll explore this in depth as we continue, over the course of several more sessions, and make sure it’s the right decision for both of you.”

     Claire drew herself up straight next to me and fixed Wallace with an icy glare. “I don’t think you understand how hard it’s been for me to arrive at this conclusion. We have talked ourselves in circles for the last three years and there has been no resolution. He still can’t tell me what happened over there. Do you know what that feels like, Wallace?”

     The man swallowed hard, because she had him by the balls.

     “Imagine how you’d feel if your wife flinched every time you touched her. No hugs. No kisses or silly, sweet moments. What if you had separate bedrooms, because she had nightmares and was afraid she’d hurt you in her sleep?”

     Wallace remained quiet, letting Claire’s hurt leak out.

     “It’s been almost six years.” Her voice shook.

     I knew exactly what had been almost six years, because I remembered our last time together with the utmost, painful clarity. It was one of my sweetest memories ever made, right before the worst period of my life.

     It was the night before I shipped out on my last tour. It was my last tour ever, a two-year stint in Afghanistan with a team of guys I trusted with my life. Upon my return I was finally going to hang up the towel: retire from the military altogether and do something else with my life, something with just as much meaning, just different meaning. Something that let me spend time with my wife; the rest of my nights in her bed.

     At the time our oldest, Kingsley, had recently graduated college and moved to Savannah to start a new job, while Eli would start his final year in just a few months.

     Both kids had come home for the weekend and we’d spent every waking moment together, sitting on the porch and talking about plans and dreams and what the future looked like.

     Claire kept our glasses full of cold lemonade and shuttled delicious food out to us, because when my girl was sad or scared or anxious, she cooked, and when I was about to deploy she was all of those things.

     At night she climbed me like a tree and wrapped her body around my own, like she could fuse us together with enough effort, and then I couldn’t leave her again.

     I’d left Claire several times before. I’d been deployed overseas exactly four times during the course of my military career, and she wasn’t joking when she said it was a miracle I was so close to our kids. I’d missed out on a lot of their lives, so when I was home I was all-in.

     That particular night, it was just us. Kingsley had flown back to Savannah that afternoon and Eli drove back upstate, where he was living off-campus and working for the summer.

     Claire had been the one to lock up the house that night and when she trailed into the bedroom and leaned against the doorway, I’d taken a moment to look up at her and appreciate just how beautiful my wife was. Her blonde hair was a little shorter than it had been in high school, but it was still thick and shiny, her body defined and tight from the hours of work she put in each day on our small farm.

     “Hit the shower, McEvoy.” Her voice had been deep and promising, and I’d scooted off the bed with remarkable speed to follow my wife’s orders.

     Every precious moment of that night had been burned into my memory, committed carefully, grooved into my brain to come back to, those sweet moments of loving my wife, during the nights I lay alone in a narrow Army cot.

     Neither of us had known my two-year tour would stretch to a three-year absence.

     Neither of us could have known that the Army would tell her I was presumed dead.

     Neither of us had known I would be returned to her in pieces, broken in mind, body and spirit.

     Neither of us could have known we would become strangers during the three years following.

     We drove home in silence, Claire staring out the window at the beautiful spring landscape bathed in the golden rays of the setting sun. She’d said her piece and there was nothing more, so I drove with my eyes on the road while I tried to wrap my head around what she wanted to happen.

     “You don’t want me anymore, baby?” I finally asked softly, aware that my voice was thick with the tears I’d never let run down my face.

     A heavy sigh.

     “Michael...” She turned slowly to look at me and I pulled the truck over onto the shoulder of the road, knowing this was going to get heavy in a hurry. “I’ve been your person for three decades, my love.” She reached across the space to put her hand on my arm and I had to steel myself, bracing for her touch. She watched me do it. 

     “See? That. I can’t even touch you without you pulling away from me. Do you know what it’s like to be unable to touch you?” Her beautiful blue eyes filled with tears. “I can’t go to you at night when you scream in your sleep, because I’m afraid pulling you into my arms will do you more harm than good. It’s the worst kind of torture: I have a husband, but I can’t have my husband.”

     She swallowed hard and looked out the window again. “At first, when you suggested we see a therapist, I thought the problem was with me. But then I thought, maybe you wanted to share yourself with me again and this was what it would take, so I agreed–and at first I had hope. At first. But my hope is dead, baby. I can’t look at you every day and know that all I’m ever going to be to you is a roommate.”

     I turned off the truck. 

     Put my head back on the headrest and stared out the windshield, wondering what my wife would do if I let her see the things I had never let her see. 

     You should let her go.

     What if I let her see the pain that leaked out of me at night, when I wanted nothing more than to crawl into her bed and wrap my arms around her, but couldn’t because of the incredible, crushing guilt? It rendered me useless.

     We sat there in silence until the sun sank below the horizon and dusk stole over the fields. Then I ran an arm across one dangerously leaky eye and started the truck again.

     There was a car in the driveway when we pulled in, and my heart fell. Of all the times for our daughter and her husband to surprise us, this was the worst. I wasn’t sure I could pull off the happy face my little girl expected, and I was damned sure Claire couldn’t. Those two were thick as thieves, twins born a generation apart, capable of reading each other without so much as a look, just a feeling that fizzed through the aether.

     “Oh hell,” Claire groaned, and I knew she was thinking the very same thing. “This is not a conversation I’m ready to have with the kids.”

     Count me on the same page. It was a conversation I didn’t want to have ever, especially with my wife.

     “Just…” She flipped the visor down and quickly cleaned up her mascara in the mirror. “We’ll talk about this later–not in front of them.”

     I let her go inside first and I meant to follow behind, but I couldn’t.

     Instead, I trailed slowly through the yard with Flash, our Collie-something-mutt hot on my heels. Claire had gotten him while I’d been away and he’d chosen me as his person the first time he laid eyes on me, the same way she had thirty-something years earlier.

     Flash followed me behind the barn, to where I’d been chopping wood each evening. But tonight I just didn’t have it in me. There was no fight and no energy, so I just sat on the huge stump I used as my chopping block and let what I’d never let my wife see run down my face and drop into the dirt.




     “Something’s wrong.”

     Kingsley knew it the instant I walked into the house, and though there was no way I was ready to talk about what transpired just that late afternoon, my daughter could feel that my heart was broken.

     “Rough session today.” I pasted the fakest smile ever on my face and prayed Kingsley would buy it, or just let me off the hook. If she wanted details I would break down, and once that dam was breached the tears would flow for days.

     “Must have been a rough one.” Kingsley gave me one of her brilliant white smiles. She knew more than she should about the regular visits to the therapist, but the real reason had never been disclosed. She’d simply been told it was PTSD–I couldn’t remember whether that was Mike’s idea or mine–and it was true, but it didn’t scratch the surface: the nightmares, the flinching when I touched him, the utter fear I saw in his eyes the two times I walked into his room wearing something sexy.

     I’d been trying to seduce my husband for years, desperate to find the man who’d left me six years earlier and never returned.

     He’d moved into a different bedroom just weeks after he got home, trying to tell me he wasn’t used to sleeping next to someone anymore and he feared he’d hurt me if he had a nightmare and started thrashing.

     Things like that were things you didn’t tell your kids, no matter how close you were to them.

     Re-entry into normal life and routines was hard for some soldiers, I knew that. We’d been an Army family for a quarter century, since I got pregnant with Eli just before graduating from college and Mike lost all hope of ever being signed or picked for the NFL draft.

     Truth was, the optics hadn’t been good, but I didn’t tell him that. I knew when scouts found out he was already a family man, with a wife and a daughter, he wouldn’t be considered the malleable player they were looking for. He couldn’t be as easily shaped into what a team wanted, as he already had responsibilities and expectations for his future that were molded around very real, established relationships.

     My husband was still built like the football player he’d been decades ago: tall and broad, with wide shoulders and a trim waist. He was wide and muscular, his legs powerful, his shoulders and chest a thing of beauty. His arms were still bigger than my thighs.

     All those years had gone by, and I still thought he was the most incredibly attractive man I’d ever seen. I wanted him desperately, in every way a woman should want her husband, but I couldn’t have any of him.

     “Where is Daddy?” Kingsley asked, and I had a guess but I couldn’t answer around the lump in my throat. Instead, I shrugged helplessly.

     “Probably playing with Flash. You know that dog is an absolute fool for your father, and vice versa.”

     Kingsley looked disappointed. Despite our almost psychic bond with one another, she’d always been Daddy’s girl. I knew when she came to visit us, she was really coming to visit her father, and the visits had been more frequent since Michael’s return. Losing him–thinking for almost a full year that he was dead–had destroyed all of us, and all of us were frantic for him, as if we could make up for the lost time by drinking in every moment.

     The kids didn’t know it, but they got so much more of him than I did, and I worked every day not to be jealous of my own children for their easy relationship with the stranger in my house.

     “Claire.” Till’s voice was bright and friendly. My name was just about the only word I’d ever heard him say that didn’t carry with it a thick German accent. My son-in-law, the ambassador’s son. The boy–now man–who came from money and influence and culture. He’d fallen at my beautiful daughter’s feet the same way Michael had fallen at mine, all those years ago.

     Till was fifteen, almost sixteen years older than my sweet Kingsley, closer to my age than he was to hers. She’d thought it hysterical when I pointed out he was closing in on his sixteenth birthday when she was born, which made him only three years younger than me.

     “Till.” I tried to paste on a bright smile. “I’m afraid I didn’t expect the two of you, or I’d have been better prepared. Let me just get something on quickly. It won’t be a fancy dinner, I’m afraid, but I can have something together in a snap.”

     Till smiled easily. “We should have warned you. I told Kingsley, but she wanted to surprise her papa.” He grinned, and I remained astonished that he didn’t envy Kingsley’s close, easy bond with her father.

     “I’ll put the chickens in for the night, Mama,” Kingsley called as she slipped her feet into her shoes and I blew her a grateful kiss. I would still have to go out later, to make sure the horses were settled for the night, that none of the steers I’d introduced to pasture a few days before had stupidly broken through the electric fence, and the goats were bedded down for the night. My work was almost never done.

     “Something is wrong.”

     Till and I were not close, not like me and Kingsley, and to hear his deep, worried voice told me that the emotions on my face couldn’t be hidden.

     “Claire, this is not like you.”

     He had never called me anything but Muti in the past, in deference and respect, despite our infinitesimal age gap.

     “It’s over,” I said quietly, feeling a barely-repressed sob shudder through me. “I’m not ready to tell the kids…I told Michael today that I want a divorce.”

     My son-in-law’s handsome face went pale. “You cannot do this, Claire. It will kill him…it will also kill your children.”

     “Right now it’s killing me,” I whispered, bracing myself on the counter against the tidal pull of painful emotion. I didn’t know how long we had until Kingsley dragged Michael back into the house. “He’s been home for three years, and in that time it’s been…nothing. He’s a ghost.” I lifted my hands in a helpless shrug. “I think he cares for me because he feels it’s his duty. Maybe he loves me, but I don’t think he’s in love with me. And that’s…” I could feel tears creeping up, heralding a bout of utter hysteria. “I’ve been living with a stranger since he came home.”

     Till looked distinctly uncomfortable. “I don’t think this will make it better, Claire. I don’t think this will fix anything for either of you. It will not push him to get better, if that is your hope.”

     He was right, I knew that, but I couldn’t look at Michael every day for the rest of my life and allow him to continue to suffer. I couldn’t continue to look at him the way I’d been looking at him the past three years, with longing and hope and love and hurt, only to see a wounded man, a stranger, looking back at me. A man who chose not to let me in.

     Till knew more than a little something of hurt. He’d been married once before, long before he met my daughter, and from what I knew he’d had his heart broken almost irreparably. Kingsley had, according to him, been the one to patch the cracks and give him hope again, filling him up with peace and happiness. 

     I’m not going to say that wasn’t a little weird, finding out our daughter was dating a man only a few years younger than her parents, but it had been a conscious adjustment.

     “I will overstep here…” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “When Leni left me, it was my fault. I pushed her away for a very long time, because I could not accept what it was I needed to change. And when she left, I blamed her…but it was me.”

     I’d had enough therapy for one day.

     “I understand that you are hurt. But perhaps the reason Michael is withdrawn is because of what he fears will be your response when he tells you what it is that has caused this. It is too big for him.” He slapped a hand over his heart. “He saw something, Claire. He witnessed or experienced something that destroyed him. And now his fear is that you will not understand him–or forgive him for something that was not his fault. This is the only explanation for a man like him.”

     The terrifying thing was that I was fairly sure he was onto something, but before I could even formulate a thought there was a sound from outside. Someone was sobbing.

     “Mama!” It was Kingsley. “Please, Mama, come quick. Something’s wrong with Daddy. He’s on the ground by the woodpile and I don’t think he’s breathing.”

Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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