From the first time I saw him I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. He wasn’t the Abercrombie and Fitch kind of handsome. He was the quiet, reserved, don’t fuck with me or I’ll kick your ass kind of handsome. He asked me for a light, as I puffed on a cig outside of the Education Building on 35 East 4th St. It was warm for fall in New York, I was still in shorts, but he was wearing faded jeans and hooded sweater, the kind with the drawl string around the hood and a kangaroo pouch in the front. He seemed different not the prep school, mommy and daddy pay for everything kind of guy, just average.
“Excuse me, but do you have a light?”
“Yeah.” I dug through my faded blue back pack and gave him my lighter, “Sorry it is purple.” I laughed.
“Nah its cool, beggars can’t be choosers.” His accent was so southern. Where the hell was he from?
“I’m Lillian, but everyone just calls me Lilly. What’s your name?”
“Oh, sorry I’m Daniel, glad to meet you.”
I shook his hand. It was dry, callused and swallowed my tiny paint stained hand whole.
“So, where are you from Daniel?”
“Oh you can’t tell,” He chuckled, “I from Coahoma Mississippi, way down south.”
“Wow, you’re a long way from home. What brings you all the way up here?”
A pre-med student at NYU, Daniel joined the army when he was 17 and after basic he moved up to New York for a change of scenery. He had only been in school for a year when I met him. We became friends instantly. He makes me laugh and when I’m with him I light up inside. We spend most of our time together just hanging around. We go to Washington Square Park on Wednesdays to have lunch and feed the pigeons. I’ve taken him to see the Statue of Liberty and he’s been there for me when boys have broken my heart and I’ve been there for him when girls have hurt him, though he’s hesitant to admit it, I know that they have. I find myself spending more time with him then I do my girlfriends these past months.
“Lilly! WTF GIRL! Why is it that I never see you? It’s been forever, where have you been?” My best girl friend Jane-Embry yelled at me from across the street of my apartment.
“Hey JE how ya been?” I ran across the street, Daniel following behind me. I hugged her softly. Her skinny frame was hidden under her long bohemian skirt and vintage sweater. Her short choppy dirty blond hair was disheveled as usual and her freckled face was smudged with charcoal. She must have been in the studio today.
“I’ve been good Lil, but really what have you been up to I like never see you. Have you been burying yourself in your apartment with your pastels and oil pants again? I warned you to open a window now and then you can get way to high from that shit girl.” I laughed and I saw her eyes shift from me to Daniel. Her hands on her hips she tapped her foot obviously expecting a real explanation from me.
“Jane-Embry this is Daniel.” She looked at me then at him then at me again.
“Hey.” She waved and rudely ignored his hand shake. She pulled me by my elbow down the street.
“SO this is who and where you been doing! No wonder I haven’t see you. You’ve been makin’ house with this guy for months. When were you gonna tell me?”
“Whoa! Hold the phone JE he’s just my friend I met him a few months ago. He’s far from home and he’s way nice. Damn you automatically assume because you haven’t seen me everyday I’ve been fuckin’ some guy!”
“I didn’t exactly say that, it just looks that way. Besides Track hurt you real bad so I just assumed you’d been hibernating and pouring yourself into your artwork. I didn’t expect to see you with another guy so soon since you broke things off with my brother.”
“He was the one that wanted to end it Jane-Embry so I think if I want to I can date whomever I damn well please, besides it’s been 3 months.” Daniel whipped his head in our direction and I saw him walk closer prepared to defend me, but I shook my head quickly and he just turned around on his heels and leaned against a street lamp with his back to us.
“Whatever Lilly, I just think it’s fucked up that you hang out with this guy you just met more than you do me and I’ve known you for years.”
“Well I’m sorry JE, what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing Lillian just fuck off okay.” She turned and stomped away. Daniel walked up to me and elbowed me in the arm.
“What the hell was that all about?”
“Oh just more of my friends that think we’re an item.”
“Ah, oh well let them talk. If they’re talking about you and me they’re leavin’ somebody else alone.” He had a point. “Beside, I’m too cute for you any way.” He put his hands in his jeans pockets and lightly bumped into me.
“Oh really, no way you got that backwards dude.” I rolled my eyes as we strolled down the street.
* * * * * * *
Daniel and I have been friends for two years now. He lets me use him as a muse for my artwork and I let him use me as a test patient whenever necessary. He’s my best friend. I spend most afternoons with him, and last summer I went to Mississippi to experience the “real” south. I swam in a lake and spent most days sweating my ass off in the humidity, but it was fun being with him. I saw a side to him I had never seen before. He was more free and happier than I had ever seen him. It was as if his soul came alive once we drove across the Mason-Dixon Line.
* * * * * * *
My senior year started and it was off to a great start. I saw my best friend everyday and I was right on track to graduate. It was just another day for me. Daniel had called like always to see what I was doing for the weekend and like always we were going to hang out I was sure. I saw his name and number pop up on my cell phone screen and I flipped it open immediately.
“Hey Lilly. What are you doing this weekend?”
“Nothing, why? You want to hang out or something?’
“Yeah, I’ve got something I want to talk to you about.”
“Hum, okay, well just as long as I get to pick what we do, my idea of fun has nothing to do with paint balls whizzing through the air past my face okay.”
“Ha! Yeah, okay. Listen will you meet me at Washington Square Park tomorrow after class.”
“Sure, is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you at like 3 okay?”
Something was different in his voice this time, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Daniel wasn’t the same since 9/11. Months had passed since it had happened, but he just wasn’t the same, nobody really was. He was always walking around with his brown eyes glazed over and staring off into space. We’d be walking around campus and he’d just drift off in the middle of a conversation, I found myself slapping him in the side of the head once or twice. Three o’clock rolled around and I packed up my pastels and sketchbook and headed for the park. I walked through the arch and sat down by the fountain. I love this park; there weren’t as many people here today. Things around here just don’t feel the same way that they used to. Everyone is scared, angry and confused.
Three o’clock came and went,” Where the fuck are you?” I texted him. It wasn’t really like him to be late.
“I’m over here, idiot!” I heard his voice over the splashing of water and I lifted my head up from my phone and whirled my body around. There he was only feet behind me standing under a bare tree, in full ACU.
“Hey, what the hell dude, why are you all dressed up? Is there a parade today or did I miss something?”
I loved it when he wore his uniform; it made him look like a bad ass.
“No, listen come sit with me for a minute, okay.” My stomach started to do flip flops. Daniel was never serious and today he wasn’t even poking fun at me. Something was very wrong here.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“I’m being deployed.” My heart skipped a beat. I found myself in a cold sweat, I couldn’t speak as panic rippled trough my body, I could feel the tears build up in my eyes and my mouth became dry. I didn’t say anything, instead I just sat there.
“Lilly, hey, are you okay?” he waved his hand in front of my face. I turned away from him and put my face in my hands. He grabbed my wrist and uncovered my face.
“Hey kid, it’s not a big deal. Besides, I’ll be home before you can even miss me.” Daniel and I were never the physical type, but I snatched back my wrist and wrapped myself around his chest in a death grip hug. I cried heavily.
“Whoa, there killer,” he put his arms around me, rubbing his hands over my back. “It’s okay, I’ll be fine and remember I’m going over there to keep people from dying, so it’s a good thing.” I pulled myself away.
“A good thing? What the fuck Daniel? How you getting shot at ever a good thing.”
“Listen, calm down, this is what I signed up for okay. I didn’t join the Army just to do it. I have responsibilities. People depend on me! if I don’t go somebody else could die. Somebody else’s best friend could die without me.”
“I know,” stuttering, I pulled myself together and wiped the mascara running down my face on my jacket sleeve.
“Don’t cry, it makes you look like a raccoon. Listen, I leave for the airport in a few hours so let’s just hang out.”
“A few hours? What the hell?” He put his hand over my mouth.
“Shut up! Enough with the swearing there are children in this park. I didn’t want to tell you until I got ready to leave. I know how emotional you get and well I don’t do well with goodbyes.” He uncovered my mouth and I just stared at him. This might be the last few hours I have with my best friend. I better stop crying and make the most of them.
“Alright, I’m sorry.”
“Let’s walk around the city and I’ll tell you all about where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing so you don’t worry and you can write to me everyday if you want to.”
“Okay.” I put my arm through his, my head on his shoulder and we walked around the park.
I rode with him to the airport, it was a silent journey. I just kept staring at him, soaking in the moment, trying to remember everything about him. His clean shaven face, high and tight hair cut, and crisp ACU that crinkled when he moved against the leather covered taxi cab seat. We stood on the curb of the airport for a moment. He talked about where he would be and how I could write to him and I attempted not to cry.
“So, don’t be sad. Think of all the good I’ll be doing. It’s just like I told my mom and dad: I want to help people, I want to save lives, and let’s be honest I’m kind of excited that I might get to blow some shit up too. “
I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. Daniel always had a way of making me laugh even if my world was crumbling.
“Alright, go. Don’t miss your flight, or Big Brother’s gonna come after you. Hey, remember to take care of yourself while you take care of everybody else.”
Just like that he was gone. I writeeveryday. When he writes back he tells me that he is fine and that there are days when he is bored as hell and other days he is too busy to eat or goes days without sleeping. He says it is hot as hell and the sand and heat are kicking his ass. I send him care packages with baby wipes, Chap Stick and Kool-Aid for his canteen. I talk to him about anything but about how much I miss him, his company, and his laughter. He’s been gone for six months.
Things have started to change lately; his letters are starting to arrive later, if they arrive at all. I can tell his hands have been shaky. His writing is sloppier then normal these days. He lies to me when we talk on web-cam. He tells me he’s okay but the dark circles and his sunken, bloodshot, brown eyes tell me differently. He’s aged, the evidence of days without shaving and showering are evident from his matted hair and scruffy face. My feelings for Daniel have changed. I see his sadness in him. It makes me hurt inside. He’s started to treat me differently. He talks to me differently. I logged on to my computer at 9:00 A.M. just see him after dinner at 6:30 on web cam.
“Daniel can you see me? Can you hear me?”
“Yea I see you beautiful.”
He looked like shit. His hair was slicked down on his head and he looked like he had shaved with a piece of glass. It was cut all to hell.
“Hey stranger. What happened to your face?”
“Oh this,” pointing to his face, “it’s nothing, I just got the shakes is all.”
“Oh, well is that normal?”
“Around here? Yeah, most guys get them; it’s a property of shell shock.”
“ Hum, when are you coming home?” I wanted to change the subject s quick as possible, but he just ignored my question and started to ramble.
“It’s not as easy over here as I thought it would be. I’ve seen some shit. I had some guy die in my hands last night. Some fucking Jihad mother fucker shot him in the stomach and he bleed out right on the table with my fucking hands right in his gut.”
I found myself holding back tears and vomit.
“I’ll be home in a few months don’t worry.”
“I worry about you. I think about you all the time. Is there anything that you need?”
“I need you…” He paused for a moment my heart skipped a beat. He needed me? What did he mean by that?... “to tell me about everything back home, and could you send me some more of those baby wipes and some cigarettes, I’m about to run out.”
I refocused myself. Shit was getting complicated.
“Yeah sure whatever you need.”
“Thanks doll. Sorry, I have to go other guys have to talk to their girls too.”
The screen went black and he was gone before I got to say goodnight. What did he mean by “other guys have to talk to their girls too?” Was I his girl now? I will have to wait until tomorrow morning before I can find out.
I had a dream that night, a nightmare really. He was traveling in a Humvee with three other soldiers, their faces I can’t remember, but his face was blank; void of his wonderful smile. He sat on the edge of the seat with his aid bag on his back, body armor covering his chest, back, knees and elbows, a M4 carbine semi automatic rifle in his hands resting across his chest and his M9 Beretta strapped to his leg. I remember only the hum of the engine and sandy gravel crunching under the weight. The silence was broken with an explosion, a giant hole was blown through his vehicle, hot metal and blood poured onto the gravel and sand. His face was covered in blood with pits of metal poking out of his body armor. Who was going to save my friend, when it was his duty to save everyone else? I awoke in a panic covered in sweat with my heart racing and my chest tightening. I had to write to him.
I sit down at my desk with two letters in front of me, one like all the rest I have sent, checking on him and telling him things are okay over here and the other letter simple and honest.
I love you. Come home soon.