by Adrienne Bourgeois
She watched him sleep. She knew better than to wake him, or touch him. Being caressed, unexpectedly, brought out the brute in him. The one he struggled to suppress, pretending those parts were left in Fallujah.
This time was different.
His eyes did not dance with menace against his lids. The corners of his mouth, usually pulled tight, withdrew. She thought she caught a glimpse, a small smolder of a smile.
Her eyes drifted, neck to deltoid. She wanted to knead his tension away. She felt a minuscule bead of saliva leave her mouth—lust for his perfectly molded structure.
Her finger hovering, she traced the veins of his quadriceps, carefully and without contact. The vessels looked like lighting bolts—an ill-tempered storm.
He moved, thrashing his body into a fetal position.
The tension lessened and his body relaxed. She watched his pulse ease in the vessels. The blood flowing evenly now.
He cried out. Shrill, different than usual. More effeminate.
Gasping, he sprang up, now fully awake. She noticed the sweat-dampened sheets.
She allowed him to slide inside of her. An attempt to make something despite knowing that it was not the creation of life he longed for.
He laid there, on his side of the bed, watching her sleep, her bottom lip slightly separated from the top. He liked her lips, but never told her.
She was satisfied, he could rest.
He slept without disruption for a moment, but the night terrors woke him and he reached out for her.
In his restlessness, he attempted to process his emotions—his pain, his love, his sadness. His happiness and anger. His forgiveness. To heal.
He looked at her, still asleep, wishing he knew how to tell her what she needed to hear. He whispered in her ear. “I love you. You are beautiful.” But she slept.
He glanced at his easel. The paints she brought him when he came home last September were unopened. “Dammit Adrienne,” he had said, “I told you. I am a grunt, not an artist.” Now, he pulled his easel to the other room, not disturbing her sleep.
The portrait was a gift for her. One of those women writers she was always reading. This one wore glasses. He finished by dipping his fingers in paint, creating frames with fingertips. He thought he saw himself in the writer’s lens.
That made him uncomfortable, being transparent. Before she could see what he had created he pushed the easel back. Washed his hands. Without sound, he pulled out and opened the trunk under their bed. He placed the painting underneath his bullet casings, fatigues, and dog tags. Locked it away.
He climbed in bed, pulled her close. His body guarding hers.
That was the last time he was close to her. Days had become months. Although she was gone, memories remained.
He fell in love with her in that house. On that sofa. His shoulder twitched, and he wished it was still her long, unruly hair, gently tickling him. When she wasn’t writing, they had watched war documentaries. That was when he knew she was different—loving and tender—never squirming at the mutilated devil dogs.
She endured battles of her own. To her, life scars were beautiful, naturally created, tragic works of art. He felt that in her kiss.
He cleared his throat, hard, like a man would. Got up. Turned off what was once there. Walked to his bed. Alone.
He ended it. Not her. He couldn’t explain how he felt. She thrived with words.
She fought, willing to persevere so they could create life together.
When he watched her write, he knew her art would nurture many.
Knowing she would pick him every time, he left her. Sacrificing his happiness, her happiness, so the world could be a bit more beautiful.
On his dresser, the picture of her remained. He meant to move it. He traced a finger across the photo and stopped on her eyes. He regretted not making eye contact more often. Eyes like the green- and gold-flaked marble he had as a child. He remembered how sad he’d been the day he lost it. His favorite. Perfect for him.
He left the picture there, always in sight.
He rolled over. Reached for the vacant pillow. Pulled it close to his body. It didn’t feel like her, not like his favorite parts. He missed the way her legs felt intertwined in his own.
He thought he could smell the scent of her hair so he pushed the slope of his nose into the pillow. Breathing. Trying to suffocate what breath he had left with any scent that lingered. In the dead of the summer, her hair like autumn and gentle rain. A reminder of new life to come.