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You went off to your war and you left me your keys.

The night before you left, we ate steak and practiced pretending. In the morning, you drove me back into the city. Like you always did. We held hands and I traced the outline of your broad thumbnail with the tip of mine. You kissed me goodbye and I held it together. Until your taillights disappeared over the round of the hill.

It wasn’t like the movies. It would have been easier if you had just disappeared. Flown across the sea. The break between us abrupt and clean. Afghanistan. Unknowable and indisputable. Like a period in our sentence. Or at least an ellipsis. Instead, your war started down South. Fort Jackson. Then Fort Bragg. Where I could still get you. And you could get to me.

You called me most nights while you were in training. Telling stories in the way you always told stories. Jittery narratives laced with names and acronyms and locations. Hard to follow. I struggled to hold my end of the conversation. You told me about practicing escapes from rolled humvees. I rolled the words around in my mouth. I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing in my life that could compare to your war.

I came to see you one last time. Down 95 in your old Mercedes with the busted speedometer. Fayetteville, North Carolina. Dusty and sprawling. A strip mall stripped to the bones. Driving past the tattoo parlors and the Vietnamese restaurants. Brand new F-150s in the parking lots. The boys in high and tights and cowboy boots.

You met me in the parking lot of your hotel in uniform. My heart jumped. Just a little. Even though I begged it not to.

I tried to distract you. As best I could. Pizza and beer. Durham and hiking. We took pictures at Raven’s Rock overlooking the Cape Fear River. My freshly shaved face and Royals hat. The chain holding your tags visible above the neckline of your shirt. Forced smiles to cover the sadness. Cold in the winter sun.

The day I left, you took me on base and we practiced pretending. Showed me where you trained. The ropes and the climbing walls. The blocks of low brick houses. Clotheslines and discarded toys. Ripped from another time. Saying casually that we could live there.

If we were married. If I were part of your war. Which I did not want. But of course still did.

After dinner, I let you talk me into coming back to your hotel. Instead of going home. Weather on the TV and your gear piled on the second bed. We fell asleep, your hand flat against my back. Alarm ringing at 3:00 A.M. You kissed me goodbye and I held it together. Until my taillights disappeared around the bend in the road.

A week later, you went off to your war and I put away your keys.

It lasted 10 months. You called. Worse than when you were in training. Jackhammer descriptions. Grey skies and guns. The dust. The weird hours. The names of your friends. Everything I was expected to know. Foreign. Like the uncertainty in your voice.

You told me you missed me. I didn’t say the same. Not because I didn’t. I just wasn’t sure I should. I kept the pictures from Raven’s Rock on my dresser. But it was easier not to think of you.

You gave me small errands to do on your behalf. Reasons to use your keys. Deliveries to be checked. People to contact on your behalf. My normalcy felt shameful compared to your war. The gravity of your days. The preciousness of your time. All the guilt that came with.

I stopped answering every time you called. Shortened our talks when I did. Which helped me cope. But did not help you cope. Or understand.

You still wrote me letters. Pages missing. Things struck out. Removed by people paid to read what you wrote to me. Locations and times. Dates and names. Our story redacted. But the meat still there.

Plywood rooms. Blinking lights. Stories about bombs and death. Death that you watched on a screen. The sound and the flash. The way the villagers would scurry to gather the the parts of people they loved. Or at least the heads. To bury what could be buried.

I read your jokes. Jokes stolen from people you worked with in the room with the screens. Which helped you cope. But did not help me cope. Or understand.

The months bled on. So did we.

Resentment on both sides. Unfair but true. My mind wandering back to Fort Bragg. Missed and answered calls. What you said to me in the car. Your picture put away. The fantasy of the moment. Words blacked out. How things could have been. Your keys in the drawer. What if. If we weren’t us.

Imagine it. Our house on base. Ring on my finger. Dinner for one. Afghanistan. Unknowable and indisputable. Long months of letters read after dark at our formica table. The delicious fear of not knowing. Having something real to be sad about. Then finally the news. Standing in the airport with a sign. One husband in the sea of wives. Crying on the hangar floor. You in uniform. Me wrapped around you. Just like the movies. My very own American love story.

The months bled out. So did we.

The night you came back, we had steak with your friends and practiced pretending. In the morning, you drove me back into the city. Like you always did. We held hands and I traced the outline of your broad thumbnail with the tip of mine. I kissed you goodbye and I held it together.

Gave you back your keys. But kept your story. Which is I think what I wanted.

Instead of your heart.

Zach Straus

Zach Straus peaked at 15 and is mostly held together by masking tape.

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