‘My beloved Eva,
Not a night goes by that I do not dream of you.’
I stop. This opening is too stilted, too conventional. A perfect cliché. The paper soon finds itself in the trash bin. Running my hand through my hair, I wrack my brain for an idea, a verse, a poetic phrase. The ones I find there are vapid and juvenile. I do not know why I find myself bound to write such trash. But write I must. I begin anew. ‘My love—’
This time I do not get past the first words before my stomach begins turning. I strike at the paper, a black gash cutting clean across the middle. I am so revolted at myself. Sweat slicks the back of my neck, and my hands quiver with cold. In one week, it will be Saint Valentine’s Day. What is wrong with me, that I cannot write a simple love letter?
I must be a fool.
There are two boxes open to my right—one old, one new. One contains the stationery on which I have been attempting to scrawl a love letter for the past two and a half hours. The other contains the love notes of my past—our past, entwined. The stationery is clean, white, professional. The old notes are cluttered, scrawled messes, scribbled on whatever happened by—napkins in a restaurant, pamphlets, candy wrappers. These boxes have one thing in common—they are a burden to me.
My pen wanders in the air, tracing invisible, lazy patterns that resemble no earthly script. Right now, my mind is clear. I must focus on the task at hand, but the emptiness is wonderful. It cannot last.
She is at home right now, in a glossy American house, in a glossy American suburb. She is perhaps tending her garden right now, perhaps burying her nose in a book. She is perhaps sprawled out over silken sheets, her skin bare and goose-pimpled, her quivering fingers toying with the golden ring she has worn faithfully for years—endless years. Or maybe she is walking the dog, wearing that minute shackle, bearing with grace the pitying smiles of women whose husbands return home daily to a warm hearth and a loving family.
I will not go home.
My hand fishes in the old box for a scrap, any scrap. The handwriting on the back of the brochure—‘Mann Co. Quality Medical Equipment!’—is my own; I barely recognize it. It is the lazy script of a young doctor, one who has not learned to tame his emotions. ‘I could fall eternally into the green pools of your eyes,’ it reads. ‘I love you with every litre of blood in my veins.’ I want to gag. I can’t believe I wrote such garbage. Yet this garbage is what I must emulate.
‘I could fall eternally into your eyes,’ I write. What am I thinking? She is not dense. I discard the paper and whip out another piece.
This simple act of writing is a ritual labor, a yearly task that can only be completed with grudging self-discipline. It has roots in our courting days, when the fever of love still seized us. Those days, long years ago, needed no excuse, no appointment, to pen sugary declarations of lust. I wrote as a mad poet writes, sending off every note that spewed from my pen. Maybe now, the ritualized nature of it bothers me. Perhaps forcing myself to emote is an error. But then—if I simply waited around for love or inspiration to strike, she might never hear from me at all.
‘Dear Eva,’ I begin again, and stop myself. The wording is pedestrian. It lacks intimacy. The words disappear under a black scribble. ‘Dear Eva—’ But that is what I just wrote! The paper meets an inglorious end, crumpled up in a wastebasket that is filling to capacity. ‘I cannot begin to express my love for you,’ I write on a new sheet. At least I am being honest now. ‘Your eyes—’ Here I freeze. What garbage, I think. Everyone writes about eyes, eyes, eyes. It is stupid. Surely there is more to a human being than eyes! I try to recall her features, any features worth mentioning. Her face escapes me.
I paw through the swamp of ancient letters, rummaging for scraps of a distinct picture—one painted by a younger, lovestruck man. Strokes emerge. ‘Your shimmering golden locks.’ ‘Your milk-white skin.’ ‘Alabaster shells of your ears.’ ‘Your charming, dimpled chin.’ ‘Your spiderlike fingers, veined with blue, deoxygenated blood.’ ‘The soft chocolate nubs of your nipples.’ I taste bile. I see a portrait emerging, but not of her—one of my own bizarre fixations. My skin creeps with the feeling. Nevertheless, I must begin somewhere. I scrawl: ‘Whenever I dream about your graceful hands, your gentle lips…’ Of course, I cannot remember a great deal about her lips, either—only that I once longed to entwine them with mine. That sounds like something I would have written once. Indeed, lying atop the pile I find this: ‘Only when we kiss am I complete. My mouth is empty without your tongue in it.’ Ugh.
‘My beloved, if the love I harbor for your soft smile, your wild jade eyes, your marble-sculpted figure, your tender beating heart, may be contained in words, then let me sing them loudly from the mountaintops, that the world may know of, and celebrate, my love for you, as I do…’
Shoot me, spare me the humiliation.
Maybe I should stop this for now. I have worked long enough. Too much work of this nature is hazardous to one’s health. My head falls back, and cool air washes over my forehead. I wish to purge my mind of this drudgery, yet I find it wanders back. The frustration branches out from the core of my brain, hot sparks chasing one another through synapses. I draw sharp breaths through tight lips. Were I a man of less composure, I might fall into a fit of tears. What a stupid thing to get upset over.
A vast figure looms at my back—one I know too well.
“If you are not bleeding to death or developing a tumor, I want nothing to do with you,” I say. And add, “Heavy.”
“Ah, doktor, you have caught me.” He doesn’t have to touch me to press in on me; his presence, mountainous, permeates the air. Does he think he is like a spy, who cannot be seen unless he wishes to be seen? “What is doktor up to, that is making him look so tense?” he wonders.
I am not fond of this man. As a teammate, I value him for his strength, and for his protective bulk. Likewise, he values me for my healing ability. As a unit, we guarantee each other’s survival on the battlefield—more than that, we are a nigh-unstoppable force. And this would be a fine arrangement, if certain parties had the sense to keep it to the battlefield where it belonged.
But as our partnership solidified, he took it into his head to appoint himself my personal guardian during cease-fire as well. He has taken to popping into the infirmary more often than he ought, watching over me in my work, fixating on the movements of my hands with a gaze that chills my blood. Teammates who make disparaging comments about me are soon silenced. At times, I feel him stalking me like a shadow—a large and unnecessary shadow.
“Of course I am tense,” I snap. “I am very busy, and you are interrupting my work. Can you not see that, Dummkopf?”
“You are always busy, though!” His tone is almost like a child’s. I’d like to rip his tongue from his mouth. “This is not different from other days! No, is something else upsetting you.” He peers over my shoulder. I have no idea why the hell he is so interested in my well-being. “What is this you are working on? Does not look like science.”
“Paperwork,” I say, “very important paperwork. For RED,” I add.
“I am not stupid, doctor,” he says.
“Fine, then.” I throw my hands up in the air. “I am writing a stupid letter. Is that good enough for you?”
“Letter?” His confidence falters, and the word hangs in the air for a moment as he catches his breath. “You write… letters?” Echoing my words back at me does not do a whole lot to convince me of his intelligence. “To who?”
“Mein Gott, am I being interrogated or something? Leave me alone, you tremendous oaf!”
Wintry silence falls. He retreats from my shoulder, and the sudden opening of space welcomes a howling gale, dead silence roaring between us.
When he speaks again, he sounds hurt. “I was only asking question, doktor.”
The way he tosses that word about—that “doktor”—infuriates me. It is like his pet name for me. I would like to vivisect him one of these days. I would enjoy probing his intestines, prodding his lungs, piercing his heart. “I am the medic,” I say. “That means I ask the questions. You do not. And if you are not out of here in ten seconds, I will send you back to the respawn personally, do you understand that?”
He chuckles, so low I almost cannot hear it. “Doktor thinks he can hurt me.” As if he finds it… cute.
“Get out of my office!” I roar. “NOW!”
I whip around. He is still standing there. He smiles at me—has the gall to smile at me. “Who are you writing to?” he asks again, treading the dangerous ground.
I almost want to not answer. Instead I say, “My wife, Dummkopf. Who the hell did you think?”
The words hit him like a missile. “You have… wife, doktor?”
“And… you are sending her Valentine… da?”
“Congratulations. It took you that long to figure it out.”
At those words, something in his face loses its hardness—its faith in me, perhaps. He has, I think, a remarkably single-tracked mind, obsessing over me as he does. The idea that I might have a life beyond him (as, indeed, he has no life beyond me) must be foreign to him. “I did not know you had wife,” he says, in a very low voice. I have disrupted his psyche. “Why do you tell no one this?”
“Because it is nobody’s business,” I say. “Especially not yours.”
“Oh,” he says. And then, “You never go visit her. Even on holidays, you stay here. Why is that?”
“My work—” I gesture at the desktop, barren but for my current project. “—keeps me very busy.”
“Oh,” he says again. He nods, digesting.
“Now are you satisfied? Will you leave me be?” Not waiting for his response, I return to my labor. He gives no answer but the shuffling of his feet to the door—the only one that satisfies me, at long last. When he pauses once more, I want to groan. He is like a dog too stupid to train, that comes back to be hit over and over.
“I do not like to see doktor so tense,” he says from the doorway, or somewhere near it. “Is not good for you.”
“Just get out.”
“If you need anything… ask.” And he leaves—at last.
“I don’t know what I would need from an enormous idiot like you,” I mutter, not caring if he is out of earshot. I am harsh to him. Maybe overly so. I would not need to be if he didn’t feel this compulsion to look after me like some clucking mother hen—or lover. Ugh, I do not want to think about the kind of love a brute like him could offer. Better to focus on the task at hand, for I must finish—even if it kills me. I force myself to look at the unmarred paper before me. The whiteness hurts my eyes.
The tip of my pen drops down. ‘I miss you every second,’ I write. Oh, that’s funny. Of all of the stupid, false things I could write, that must be most stupid, the most false. What a joke. I am a joke. I have grown too old to dance this ancient waltz; somewhere along the way I have forgotten the steps.
‘My love—’ The pen is beginning to develop distinct bite marks. I haven’t chewed on a pen since I was an adolescent. Maybe that’s a positive development—no, most likely not. I feel a distinct chill in the air, unless it is my blood that is cold.
Her letters lay nestled in the box, mingled with mine, her tight, feminine script a sharp contrast to the masculine, loopy scrawl. Many of them are equally ancient—relics of another time. A few are more recent, the ritual offering from her in exchange for my own. It has not occurred to me to read them. In fact—I don’t think I ever have.
The words could crumble in my hand. Her language is much simpler than mine—more composed and rational. She expresses herself without adjectives. ‘I love you.’ ‘I promise not to betray you.’ These couched in mundane sentiments and actions of everyday life. She creates a porcelain veneer, and the crack through which love dribbles permits precious little expression. Her most outrageous flight of poesy is this: ‘You are the star that lights my way. I cannot imagine life without you.’ Never losing her grounding. Falling head-over-heels, yet she kept her wits about her, and loved deeper for it.
Her latest letters contain no such statements. They do not extend far beyond, ‘I hope that you are well and have not been killed.’
I try to write again. ‘You are a beautiful flower, a precious pearl—the star that lights my way.’ My hands feel like ancient spiders, whose chitinous shells crack at the slightest pressure.
I used to run my fingers through her hair, hold her close to me, kiss her clueless. I have forgotten the textures of her hair, of her mouth. I cannot even remember the color of her eyes. I only know they must be green because I once wrote of their color, their beauty, in flowery prose. Was she beautiful? She must have been—once. Perhaps not anymore.
It was six years ago that I bade her farewell. I cannot remember the shape of her face, or the subtle nuances of her features—yet I remember the disappointment in the downturned corners of her mouth. She never faltered, even beneath the fatal stroke.
“I’ll write to you,” I told her, almost offhand.
She nodded, and the frown left her face. “I’ll write to you, too. Promise me you won’t get killed.”
“Ach—I can’t make promises like that.” Oh, I could laugh at myself.
Long after the sparks of a thousand fireworks faded, her candle kept burning. For what? Why am I still going through these motions, trying to emulate atrophied feelings? Why, when I have not seen her face in six years?
The old letters, almost sticky with syrupy sentiment, display but a caricature of a lovestruck boy. If love exists in my heart now—if it ever did—I cannot reach it, mired as I am in thorny vines of selfishness, and callousness, and pride. I should envy that boy, who could cut through the tangled wreck and procure such gems of admiration, couched though they are in hackneyed language. My bones are too weary, my heart too cynical for such work. The open bay of her body is no safe harbor for me in my old age. I have grown past boyish lusts. Indeed, whittling such sentiment down, one should find no real substance.
‘I wait for you faithfully,’ she writes.
She deserved no such punishment. Such devotion she radiates—a man like me could only besmirch it. Poor devoted girl. She clung to me as a child clings to its most precious toy. Her faith in the sincerity of my love never wavered, and her sincerity sang like a chime in the wind. Am I capable of such love for a woman? Was I ever? I might crack open my ribcage and see a gray and callused mass, not even beating. I might rip it out and never feel the loss. My conscience should quail at it, yet that too is dead.
If she still waits for me, then God help her. For this love of mine—gestated within an unfit parent—was stillborn. And for years, I have lavished countless trails of ink upon a corpse.
‘forgive me forgive me forgive me—’
The paper shrieks as I tear it in half.
I am frozen, deep to the bone, and I find myself unable to stop shivering. If only I could offer her now what she once sacrificed to me. I cannot. I rise up on unsteady feet that feel old and enfeebled, more now than ever before. Flashing specks dot my vision. I turn away, leaving my unfinished work all over the desk. My pen dangles from my fingers as I stagger through the doorframe, down the hallway; it falls, somewhere. My feet lead me. My mind stays behind, turning over half-formed thoughts, dismantling them, erecting others in their place. I am weary; I need to still these thoughts. But these are the revelations I must force myself to see, the flaws that have gone unacknowledged long enough to gather dust.
What lies in her heart, at this moment? Is she cursing my name? Or is she stitching up her splintering heart in dutiful silence, in the hope that her husband will return to her, and the knowledge he will not? God forgive me, for I know she cannot.
My train of thought abruptly derails when I walk straight into a sofa. “Doktor?” says its occupant.
In my distracted self-derision, I have wandered into the rec room. It is fairly empty, occupied by only three of my teammates. The sleeping Scout has planted his face in a checkerboard, drooling all over an unfinished game. The Pyro plays with matches in the corner, striking two at once and watching which one burns up fastest. And half-sprawled over the sofa before me is—him.
He grins at me with pity in his eyes. “Doktor is still tense, da?”
My mouth cannot seem to work properly. “I… was not watching where I was going. I need to return—” I try to step away. “—to return to my work.”
“You are not going anywhere!” he says, grabbing at my shoulder. “Is dangerous for doktor to be wandering around not thinking. We do not want him running into spy!” He laughs. How can he be so jovial, when I treat him so poorly? I always treat those who care about me poorly. He does care about me—it is written in the lines of his mouth, of his open palm. He extends himself to me in a way that makes words unnecessary. I cannot accept such an invitation, yet I am drawn to him—compelled by my own childish desire to seek comfort and absolution. To have the pain kissed away.
This thought should disgust me—I am too weary to be disgusted. All I can think is how firm his shoulder is as I lean into it, how protective the arm that encircles me. How his body heat chases the coldness from my core and stills my quivering limbs. He allows me to curl up against him. He could crush me. Yet he shelters me as gently as a mother bird shields her young beneath her wing. I wish I could hate this man. His kindness is too much. If nothing else, I should warn him away, draw him back from the brink of this emotion. This is my duty to him as a teammate, if nothing else. Yet he renders me mute.
That I allow myself to derive comfort from him illustrates my inmost flaws in vibrant color. Poor girl, now your husband is a traitor too.
How easy it would be, right now, to shrink into a tight shell and die in his arms. I should die, just lie down and never respawn again. But not now—not here. Somewhere colder. Cold as the snowy street where I first met her, where my hand learned to hold another. That hand is corrupted with the spilled blood of a thousand slaughtered words—with the empty blood running in my veins. The flesh withers away, loosening its grip on bleached bone. Black ink rains over me. So many wasted words… the most important ones left unsaid, uncreated and inconceivable.
She smiled at me once. I’d like to believe I smiled back.
He smiles at me now. My heart quakes at it. “Is doktor… less tense now?” That he can lower his voice to a near whisper astonishes me.
I can only sigh. “Nein…”
“Oh, Medic,” he murmurs—such heartfelt empathy spilling from his lips. He is kind to me—only to me. His kindness is wasted on me.
“Heavy…” The word is a plea. I am learning brevity in the arms of a brute. Too late, for I am too far gone to speak any other language than dust and air to my once beloved, my Eva. She slid off me a long time ago, and collapsed on a foreign shore of ashes. I suppose that makes me a brute as well. “Danke,” I murmur into that reprehensible shoulder. His warmth leeches into me.
He strokes my hair. “Is no problem, doktor.”
God forgive me. I cannot forgive myself.