There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.
"You have to have some of this."
Heather turns from surveying the chaos of the junior class picnic to the source of the voice. Will Johansson is standing across the buffet from her holding out a spoonful of something dripping with sauce. She looks down at her plate; it's already half full of pulled pork, in stark contrast to all the other girls, whose plates are full of salad and grilled chicken. She shoves some the pulled pork aside and holds her plate out to Will.
She takes a bite right away. "Oh my God," she moans. "This is fantastic. What is it?"
"Boneless ribs. My mom made them," he says sounding somewhere between ashamed and proud of that fact.
"I'm going to steal her." Heather shoves more food into her mouth. "I can't not have these in my life now that I know what I've been missing."
Will laughs. "You want to come eat with me?" he asks.
Heather glances toward her friends, sitting in a circle on the edge of the grass, then back at Will.
"Yeah, okay." She follows him to the edge of the field and they settle under a tree. "Where are the other two musketeers?" she asks.
Will sighs. "Tunny is hanging out with Eric Conners. Johnny is off somewhere sulking about that."
Heather follows Will's gaze across the field to where Tunny and Eric have their heads bent over a magazine, looking more at each other than the page in front of them. "When you say Tunny and Eric are hanging out, do you mean they're, like, hanging out?"
"Yeah." He winces. "But it's really not public knowledge so…"
"Not a word. No problem." She studies Will's face. He's staring more past Tunny and Eric now, looking somewhere between longing and pained. "Are you guys going to be okay?" she asks.
Will looks back at her. "We'll be fine. Tunny's a flavor of the week kind of dater. He'll move on, probably to a girl. I'll pretend Johnny didn't spend a week and a half being a homophobic asshole, and Tunny won't even have noticed." Heather reaches out tentatively and puts her hand on Will's shoulder. "Sorry, I'm making us sound like a group of drama-filled gir-. Uh."
Heather laughs. "You can say it. For example," she points to her group of friends who are staring at them, "I'm creating some right now."
"Should we really give them something to talk about then?"
"Why, Will Johansson, I didn't know you had it in you. I'm scandalized." She does her best to sound shocked, but leans in to him as she says it, smiling at him from behind her bangs.
"No. I just meant, do you want to hang out some time?"
Heather raises her eyebrows at him.
"Not hang out." He looks down at the ground. "Jesus, I can't win," he muttered "Would you like to go out some time? With me. On a date."
Heather brushes her hair out of her face and smiles at him. "Yes."
They go out for barbeque for their first anniversary. It's Will's idea. Heather's friends gush over how cute he is to think of that, and while she won't say it out loud, she agrees.
When they're done with dinner, Will takes her to the tree house he, Tunny, and Johnny built in the little patch of woods behind Johnny's house. He makes her wait at the bottom for a minute and climbs up ahead of her.
When she's finally allowed, she sticks her head through the hole in the floor and sees five candles arranged around the edge of the room. There's also a vase of flowers in the corner and a clean sheet thrown over the unfolded flip chair that's seen a sharp increase in the number of suspicious stains on it since Tunny started dating Karen Fowler.
Will takes her hand and helps her climb the rest of the way up. He settles his hands on her hips when she's standing in front of him. "Happy Anniversary," he says.
She leans in and kisses him. "It's beautiful, Will."
He motions to the chair. "Do you want to lie, or, um, sit down?" he mumbles.
Heather laces their fingers together. "Is this all for…I mean, did you plan on—"
"Only if you want to," Will blurts out in a rush, mercifully cutting her off before she has to figure out how to say it.
She looks at the floor and squeezes his hand. "I do."
Heather bites her lip as Will slides into her. She lets out a huge breath she didn't know she was holding.
"I love you," he whispers.
She drags her hands down his back and urges him to move. "I love you too."
Christine's parents go away for the weekend and leave her sister, home from college on winter break, in charge. Marie banishes her to her room the first night they're gone to make way for her friends. And her friend's friends. And their friends. Pretty soon the house is so packed that there's no way Marie will realize Christine is downstairs in an outfit taken right out of the duffle Marie had brought home with her.
She finds a group of people on the periphery of the party and insinuates herself into their circle. The joint they're passing gets handed to her. She's never smoked anything before, but she's never let unfamiliarity stop her from trying something either. She takes a hit and passes the joint to the next person, coughing and sputtering as she does. The people she's sitting with laugh a little, but give her some advice and the next time she takes a drag it goes much better.
Not much longer after that, she's flying. She is within herself and without. Lines are blurred and everything is one but she is apart. She never wants to feel anything else, ever again.
Leila never planned on joining the army. But as she's filling out her college applications, she realizes she's going to need to figure out how to pay for it if she gets in anywhere. She applies for every scholarship she can find. When she's filling out the application for the ROTC scholarship, she realizes that she wants it. The bullshit melts away; everything she's writing is real. She wants more than she ever has before.
The day she graduates, she puts on a sundress and then pulls on heavy black robes. She almost falls asleep at the university ceremony. At the College of Nursing ceremony, she gets handed her diploma and her mother cries when she sees it. It seems like the whole class is partying now, at one reception or another. But it's not time for her yet. She goes into the women's room with the garment bag her father's been carrying for her all day and swaps out her sundress for her dress uniform, and heads to one last ceremony.
She doesn't cry when she takes the Oath of Office. She is now Second Lieutenant Leila Rodriguez; it wouldn't be becoming of her to do so. But when Master Sergeant Phillip Jackson, who just spent four years running her into the ground, salutes her for the first time, she thinks she sees her father wipe away a tear as she returns it.
Some think it's holding that makes one strong; sometimes it's letting go.
Heather has no one to talk to any more. Will's drunk constantly. She can't drink even though she wants to. She can't walk anywhere because her feet hurt too much, and it's gotten difficult to fit behind a steering wheel comfortably. She hates everything about her life right now. She hates Will for putting this thing inside her, and she hates the thing even more.
Until it, he, is out of her, wailing at the top of his lungs, pink and gooey with a misshapen head. The nurse puts him in her arms and she falls so completely in love she can't believe she ever said the words before and thought they meant anything.
"Hi, David," she says as he continues to wail. She turns her head to the side, where Will should be, then looks back at her son through her tears.
Christine gets stuck, staring into the window of a diner. There's a couple sitting in the window booth; a waitress puts plates of burgers and fries in front of them. They talk and laugh as they pass the ketchup back and forth. The girl takes a bite of her burger and ends up with ketchup and tomato running down her chin. The guy says something to her and she throws the napkin she just used at him, grinning huge the whole time. They look happy. And full. Her mouth waters.
She reaches into her pocket and wraps her hand around the money in there. She could go inside and get her own burger. But she feels the need for a fix building inside of her. She turns and walks away.
She wonders if Johnny will ever look at her like that. By the time the drugs are in her hand, she needs to escape so bad, that she's tempted to shoot up right there. But she's not that stupid. That shit will get you killed. Someone shoves a flyer in her face as she's hurrying home. She grabs it and sticks it in her pocket and gets home to the sweet bliss of nothing.
She finds the flyer in her coat two days later. "It's not too late," is printed in big letters across the middle. The top reads, "You are beautiful and full of potential." There's an address at the bottom. She's curious, ballsy, and bored so she goes there, fully expecting to find some sort of cult.
She enters a small waiting room with a beat-up couch and two folding chairs arranged around a small coffee table with a plate of cookies on top. She grabs a cookie and takes a bite. She shoves three more into her pocket before she continues to look around. There's a folding table with another chair set up behind it as a reception desk with a bell and a sign instructing her to "ring bell for service." There's a bright green piece of poster board hanging behind the desk listing services offered: job search and resume services, insurance application, support groups for everything under the sun, and rehab referrals.
A girl rounds the corner and jumps when she sees Christine.
"You came," she says, recovering quickly.
"You know me?" Christine asks, guards going up.
"I'm good with faces," she explains. "I gave you the flier the other day. What can I help you with?"
"Why did you give that to me?" Christine asks, needing to know what about her looks so pathetic that she was invited to come here.
The girl shrugs. "You looked like you needed something. You work here long enough, you learn."
"I don't need pity."
"Believe me," the girl leans on the desk with her fists, "no one here will pity you. You have to work hard to get what you want, that's how the world works. But we'll point you in the right direction. Get you to a place where you don't need to fill your pockets with cookies to have something to eat."
Christine touches her pockets and looks away. "Hey, they're there to eat, don't feel bad about that. But you can try these places too," the girl says, handing her a piece of paper from a pile behind the desk..
Christine looks down at the paper. It's a list of soup kitchens. She shoves it into the pocket not full of cookies and looks back up at the girl behind the desk. "So what do I do? If I want something."
"I'll make you an intake appointment. You can talk to one of the counselors and they'll help you make a plan."
"Okay," Christine said, as the girl flips open an appointment book and looks over the page.
"How about Thursday afternoon?"
The best thing about the center is that no one tells her to stop using. They help her apply for Medicaid. She doesn't have HIV and isn't pregnant, but she does have hepatitis C so she starts getting treated for that. She goes to a lot of sessions about jobs and resumes.
She barges into her counselor's office after one of them. "How the hell am I ever going to do all of this if I've got to get my fix all the time? How the hell am I going to pass a drug test?"
"You won't," her counselor says.
Christine slumps down into the chair by the door. She twists her fingers in her hair and pulls, letting out a frustrated sigh.
"Why did you come here?"
"I don’t know." The words come out whiney and desperate. She hates it.
"Think about it for a minute."
She closes her eyes and takes a breath. Lets it out slowly. "When I'm with Johnny, I'm part of something. When we're high, we're wholly together, just us, away from the world, you know? But even when we're not, part of me is his and part of him is mine." She takes a few more breaths. "I never wanted to belong to anyone or anything. But it's not as scary as I thought."
She opens her eyes and looks out the window. "I just want to be part of the world again."
"Do you want to stop using?"
Christine grips the arms of the chair and meets her counselor's eyes. "Yes."
She's referred to a methadone clinic and quickly realizes that this is going to be the hardest thing she's ever had to do in her life. And she's probably not going to make it if she doesn't get way from other people who use. So she has to get Johnny to do it with her. She has to be able to leave if he won’t.
During the Nurse Summer Training Program, Lieutenant Colonel Thrasher talked about the quirks of rank in AMEDD. She went over how in ROTC they were learning the chain of command, how to execute orders given to them, and how to give their own. How in nursing school they were learning the principles of patient care and how to follow the attending physician's directives. And how eventually, they would encounter a doctor of lower rank directing them in patient care. How they'll have patients who outrank them and they still have to have the authority of a caregiver in that situation. How patients below them may be reluctant to provide information important to their care because of the discrepancy in rank.
None of that prepared her for falling in love with a patient she outranked several times over.
There's a fire in Tunny that draws her in. He's a little beaten down, like most of the combat casualties that cross her path. And he's a little lost, now that he won't be going back to active duty. But he still wants. Underneath everything that trampled him down, is a desire for something more, something bigger than himself. She understands that. She's attracted to that.
It's completely inappropriate.
Soon, he won't be enlisted anymore, so it won't matter that she's an officer. He won't be a patient anymore, so it won't matter that she's his nurse. But he'll be back at home, and her next duty station will likely be OCONUS. She won't even be on the same continent as him.
Her four years of active duty are almost up; she can wait out the last four of her commitment in the inactive reserves. She says goodbye to the first thing that ever gave her purpose. She follows Tunny and hopes he'll be as good a replacement as she thinks he will.
We must try not to sink beneath our anguish…but battle on.
Ronnie's not perfect. He's only been sober for three weeks when Heather meets him, but it's more of an attempt than Will ever made. And he loves David. She wakes up cold in the middle of the night once, and finds Ronnie gone from the bed and feeding David in the living room.
"Hey, baby," she says, easing down next to him on the couch. He glances at her quickly, then turns his attention back to David who's fallen asleep in the middle of eating.
"You have to make things right with Will," he says, sticking his little finger into David's grasp.
"What?" Heather keeps her voice low to avoid waking David, but there's a sharpness in her tone.
"It's not about us. We're fine. We're solid. But Will deserves to know his son."
She stands up and starts pacing the length of the room. "He drinks. He gets high. It's all the time, Ronnie." Desperation creeps into her voice. "I don't want David around that."
"Hey." Ronnie's voice is gentle. She stops by the far wall and looks back at him. He's looking at her now. "So you don't leave David with him if he's fucked up. I bet he'll get clean pretty quick. But you've got to let him see David. It kills me every day that I don't know my kids. That I'm not allowed to know them. I don't want to be a part of making anyone else feel like that."
It's painful, the first time she puts David in Will's arms. It feels like she's losing a part of herself, even though he's only five feet away. Ronnie slides his arms around her waist from behind and leans his head on her shoulder. "Isn't it beautiful?" he whispers in her ear.
"What?" she asks, only half paying attention to him.
"Seeing David with his dad. Seeing Will putting forth an effort."
She looks at Will. He spent the first weeks of David's life coming up with a list of things they couldn't do with a kid. She looks past that. He has David cradled in one arm and is stroking his cheek with a finger from his other hand. He has this smile on his face that Heather recognizes instantly. It's the same one she has in the picture the nursing student took of her and David, right after he was born.
She leans back into Ronnie's embrace. "Yes," she agrees. "Beautiful."
Christine goes to work everyday. It's not exciting. She sits at a desk. It only takes her two weeks before she's doing everything by rote. But there's a paycheck and benefits. There are friends. People to hang out with for reasons other than getting high. She's tapering off the methadone. She may not need it at all, eventually.
She has one tiny bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment. She can touch the opposite walls at the same time if she stands in the center and stretches out her arms. But it's out of her old neighborhood and she doesn't run into people with track marks on their arms anymore.
There's half a nickel bag hidden in her box spring. She doesn't think about it much. But it's there if she needs to leave the world again. Just in case.
There's a big difference between Crawford County Hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center. Now, her patients have had too much to drink and flipped their cars over the median instead of being caught in an IED blast while trying to train an Afghani police force. "Yes, m'am" is a thing of the past. She gets a lot of "darlin'" and "honey." Which at least is preferable to the times she gets sworn at and spit on.
The scrubs she wears now are not much different from the scrubs she wore then, but there's no sense of duty that accompanies putting them on. No occasional use for the uniforms hanging in her closet. No CAC card on her person at all times, just an ID sitting in a drawer.
She cares for her patients, tries to make a difference in their lives when they seem receptive, but the whole thing is devoid of a larger purpose.
She comes home to Tunny and it's worth it.
He's got a fancy new prosthetic especially for running, and sometimes they'll go together when she gets home from work. The last half-mile always devolves into play-racing that more often than not ends up with them in a sweaty, laughing heap in the front yard.
Sometimes Tunny will be cooking. He keeps coming up with stranger and stranger recipes. Once, he drove fifty miles to a specialty grocery store to find an ingredient labeled optional. He still has problems; she knows that. But he's so much better than he was.
Today he grabs her around the waist as soon as she walks in the door. She shrieks in surprise, but quickly calms as he starts kissing her neck. He makes his way to her mouth, and then backs her into the bedroom, right onto the bed. They fuck on top of the covers, though the comforter is half on the floor by the time they finish. Tunny is silent beside her when she usually can't get him to shut up after sex.
"What's the matter, Tunny?" she asks.
He rolls off the bed and walks out of the room. She tries not to analyze his gait as she watches him go because he's made it clear she's not allowed to be his nurse, his mother, and his girlfriend all at the same time.
"You got a letter today," he says, handing her the envelope when he walks back in the room.
She knows what it is as soon as she sees it. Just like he did. Stop-loss.
She slides her finger under the flap and drags it across the top of the envelope. The noise of the paper tearing is loud with no other sound in the room. The edges of the opening she makes are jagged and rough. She takes out the letter and reads it.
"You've been called back," Tunny says. It's not a question. "When?" he asks, when she doesn't reply.
"Deploying?" His voice sounds dry.
"Where?" He breathes the word out. His fingers are white where they press down into the mattress.
"Iraq," she says mirroring his tone. Tunny flinches. "I'll still be in a hospital. It will be different than it was when you were there. I'm not infantry." A blank mask start to slip over the pain on Tunny's face. She pulls him back on the bed so they're curled up facing each other and kisses him. "I'm going to be fine."
Tunny twists one hand into her hair and grabs her wrist with the other. It feels like he's holding on for dear life. "It will just be a few months. I'll be back before you know it. You'll be fine."
"I don't want you to go there," Tunny says, finally. "You're the last person on Earth who needs protecting, but I really want to protect you from that place." Leila wraps her arms around him and pulls Tunny in tight. "I want to protect me from that place," he whispers into her neck.
She crawls out of bed later, carefully working her way out from under Tunny's arm. She opens the closet door and pushes aside her clothes to where she has her uniforms hanging in the back. She touches the sleeve of her ACUs and feels excitement wash through her. She looks back at Tunny, looking unsettled even in sleep. She hates that he's in pain, but she can't make herself wish she hadn't gotten the letter; she wants this just as much as she always has.
She slides back into bed and wraps her arms around Tunny. She wants him too, but this is so much bigger. She just has to hope he'll be here when she gets back.
We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one.