My flight touched down in New York after midnight. I stepped off the puddle-jumper into the August air. It was raining.
I hadn’t felt rain in months. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. The air was pregnant with the smell of grass and late summer bloom. Earthy smells. I shuddered.
Afghanistan was gone. A bad hallucination. No smell of burning plastic and chemical shit and piss. No diesel fumes. No rot. No filth. No hollow-eyed Hajji staring up at me with that expression of impotent frustration.
I reached reflexively for my weapon. Not there.
My bag sat alone on the tarmac next to the baggage cart. The rest of the flight had already gone inside. I shouldered it and headed into the terminal. A lone attendant stood at the counter, waiting to shut the door behind me.
“Thank you,” she said. “For your service.”
My lips pulled into a halting, crooked smile. I meant to speak, but only managed an awkward nod.
It was worse in Atlanta. A huge crowd of onlookers lined the hallway as we stepped off the plane. The airport erupted in a wave of applause. I looked straight forward, lips pressed tight. A woman blocked my path as I entered the terminal, and reached to shake my hand.
Little children stood holding tiny American flags.
I stopped in the bathroom to piss and clean up. I caught a look in the mirror. I rubbed my jaw. My face looked sunken. I hadn’t shaved. I was still in uniform, but thankfully there was no one around to care.
I shouldered my assault pack again and strode through the airport. She was waiting for me on the other side of the metal detectors, her hands shoved in her pockets. A few people sat nearby in the waiting section for some flight that hadn’t arrived.
Her eyes went soft when she saw me. I meant to smile, but I don’t know that it happened. She reached out to take my hands. I touched her cheek and pulled her close. Our lips met. She pulled herself against me and pushed a hand up through my hair.
My bag fell to the ground.
I caught her lower lip between my teeth and drew her into a lingering Hollywood kiss. It felt like another hallucination.
The bystanders looked away at the last minute. She led me from the terminal by the hand. I tossed my bag on the back seat of the Jeep and climbed into the passenger side. She looked over at me and smiled.
I swore to myself that I’d never go there again. She’d broken my heart. Twice.
I was married to the Army, and there wasn’t enough room for three in that bed. The draw of the safe and familiar was intoxicating. She brushed her hand over mine.
The glass was sitting in the cup-holder. My favorite glass. A little jam jar full of bourbon. My eyes went wide with excitement. I put it back in one. It burned all the way down. An old feeling made new again.
Back at her apartment, I pushed her toward the bedroom by the hips. We wasted no time on talking. She kissed me again. I buried my nose in her hair and breathed in her scent. I pressed my lips against her throat.
I pulled her shirt off and unsnapped her bra. I felt her skin grow warmer as I kissed my way down her body. I threw her on the bed.
Afterward, I lay naked with my thumb and forefinger buried in my eyes. The dull throb of my post-coital migrane filled my skull. She touched my forearm. She knew to expect this.
I shuffled into the kitchen and took a pull from one of the bottles on her shelf.
[NOTE: Embedded image is an Afghan sunset I captured. It was my last patrol. – Max]