by Mick Hayden

I wake up suddenly and sit up in bed, sweating, heart pounding, and I feel that “dream knife,” that sharp pain like a knife in my stomach when I have one of these dreams.

These damn dreams.

Twenty years after Vietnam, they don’t come as often but they still have the same effects. They come in different variations. On this round my unit is already in action and I’m crawling and scrambling toward screaming, doing my job as a medic. My flak jacket, that has me sweating like a sauna, keeps hanging up on ground features and I can’t seem to stay low enough. The only thing saving my ass is the obscuring vegetation, tall grass and clumps of scrubbiness. Even at that, weapons fire is ripping close enough to make me cuss. There’s the sound of Hueys.

Half-way to the wounded man there’s a sharp stab in my mid-section, as though I’ve been shot, that causes me to draw my knees to my chest and start yelling. Since my flak vest isn’t closed I suppose that’s possible, but after I finally lower my legs an examination shows no external wound.

But God, it hurts like fire. What is it? That’s when I sit up in bed yelling. It was the same yelling that used to so upset Bridget, my beautiful wife. She would turn on a light and hold me and cry with me until I settled down. I say “used to” because we’re no longer married. We probably could have saved our marriage if I had tried harder.

The sweat is flowing from me and I have to peel off the sheets, a clammy extension of my skin, before stumbling to the window and staring into the darkness. Unlike the dream, the darkness is an amorphous cloud that lets me slow everything down. Everything but that pain in my gut.

I walk into the bathroom, switch on the light, lean on the sink and squint at someone in the mirror that I sometimes don’t recognize. I splash water in my face and look again. My eyes tell me stories. Stories of a failed marriage and of friends I’ve alienated because of anger I can’t explain. One former friend told me I was “meaner ‘na sewer rat.” That reflection is a punishment for the things I haven’t managed successfully; like the counseling with Dr. Enlow at the VA I finally tried, briefly, but didn’t stick with because I didn’t think it was helping; like not staying away from alcohol, that ocean of beer that eventually ended my marriage to Bridget, who tried so hard to understand. After the divorce, I somehow managed to cut back my drinking—but not quit.

The mirror portrays undeniable truths. The dark, swollen circles below my eyes make me look as though I just took a beating. My prematurely greying hair doesn’t flatter me, but isn’t going to get colored. My face is lined and furrowed more than it should be for a man in his early forties and my posture shows a slouching stance, sloping shoulders, a weariness. I remember a twenty-year old man with a ramrod straight back, chin held high and pride shining through. Little resemblance to now. The picture I have, taken in my uniform after basic training, rubs the point home like salt in a raw wound. Why don’t I throw that damn thing away? Maybe it’s simply something to cling to and pin hopes on.

The dream’s knife-pain is almost gone so I finally shuffle back to the bed, flop onto a dry place on the sheets, and hope I can find sleep without dreams. These damn dreams. Maybe I should make contact with Dr. Enlow again.