I worked in a country that was just getting through a Civil War at one point in my career. I was in my late 20’s. I had very strong opinions about who was right and who was wrong in the conflict based on conversations I’d have with people in the (poor) neighborhood that I lived in, and the arrogant, right wing attitudes of the upper class who I felt brought the conflict upon themselves by their unwillingness to stop supporting a dictatorship and exploiting the poor.
The agency I worked with had a reconciliation program. They were supporting organizations from both sides of the conflict to work together and helping ex-combatants adapt back to civilian life. One of the organizations was an association of war wounded from the armed forces: ex-soldiers who were missing arms, legs, or blinded, or had some other sort of disability due to the war.
I was sitting in my office one day around lunchtime and the buzzer rang. The secretary was on break so I got up to open the door, and C. walked in. He was a bit scruffy but there was something about him. Instant crush. Damnit. One of those things where you look at someone and they look at you, and you realize that you’ve both just gotten yourselves into a potential hot mess.
He was with another guy, T. They were looking for me because I was the point person for the project they had submitted for funding. My stomach did little butterflies and my head told it to stop. Be professional. Get your shit together. Both C. and T. walked with limps, which tipped me off that they must be from the ex-soldiers association. We got down to business.
They were presenting a project and I had to review it. That was normally quite a process which would go back and forth several times. They’d explain to me what they wanted to do, I’d take notes, try to understand the project well, present the project at our project committee meetings, get feedback, give them the feedback, they’d adjust, re-submit, I’d re-present until eventually the project and budget were in the state where we gave them the funding. If you have ever submitted or awarded a grant, you get the idea.
With all the back-and-forth, I quite spent a bit of time with C. and T. I visited their office where they were making prostheses for other war wounded. (That was the project that we were to be funding). I sat in on some of their association meetings and trainings. They came to our office to hand things in.
I never was able to get over the butterflies. C. must have had the same experience, because the interactions were always charged with a certain energy. He was presenting at a meeting at our office one time and couldn’t keep the half-smile off his face when he’d catch my eye. He’d forget what he was saying and have to re-group his mind. But we were both married already. So we never talked about it.
One day C. and T. and I were in the lobby at the agency where I worked. We exchanged the normal pleasantries. How are you, how did you sleep, how was the morning. C. said he hadn’t slept well. I made a comment like Oh, that’s too bad. Weather too hot? He said No, that he had nightmares of his leg getting blown off. Of a loud noise and being loaded into a helicopter, losing consciousness, waking up again and seeing that he was missing the lower half of his leg.
T. said he often had similar dreams. They started talking about their time in the armed forces. C. had been recruited off the street when he was around 15. T. had joined voluntarily. C. talked about how the army would come around and pick young guys up off the street. They’d take you to the barracks and beat you up. Then you’d sleep on the cement floor. The next day they’d come back around and ask: Who wants to go home. If you raised your hand, you’d get another beating. Eventually everyone decided they’d prefer to stay. They’d make you drink dog blood and pump you all up before you’d go out to fight.
T. spoke. I don’t dream about my leg. The thing that gives me nightmares is the time I shot a child.
You shot a child? How could you shoot a child?
I have nightmares about it all the time. He was probably about 12. I can’t get his face out of my mind. I never sleep the night through. But it was him or me. I was there, pointing my gun at him. He was there pointing his gun at me. One of us was going to die. So I pulled the trigger.
Oh. Um. Wow. Uhhhhhhh… think, think, uh, don’t know what to say to that…. uhhhh…. So, shall we review that project then?
C. drove me home one time after I’d made a visit to the project. He told me that he had a gun hidden in the car under the passenger’s seat because he was afraid the armed forces would send someone after him since he was leading protests against the government to demand benefits for the disabled ex-soldiers. Did I want to see the gun? I felt scared. I was an idiot for getting into a car with a guy who was from the Armed Forces and who had a gun. He said I could just reach down and I’d feel it there, and I could see it if I wanted. I had never held a gun before. And I didn’t want to. I declined.
We drove through downtown. Total Eclipse of the Heart was playing on the radio. He said he’d always wanted to know the words, so I translated them for him as we drove in stop and go traffic. The other thing, the thing we weren’t talking about, made the tension in the car thick. We got a couple blocks from my house and I said he could let me out there. I didn’t want people talking about who I’d gotten a ride home with.
So, can I at least have a kiss on the cheek? he asked. The tension burst. No, I said. I can’t. I’m married. I can’t. I have to go.
I got out of the car. He drove away.
Their project continued. I always looked forward to the project monitoring visits and office meetings. The tension built up again. My husband picked me up from work one day after C. had been in the office. I was giddy. What’s your problem? Why are you acting like this? You’d think someone just proposed to you.
One day, C. came by the office unexpectedly. He told me that he was leaving the Association. I had my small daughter, about 3 months old, at the office with me. It was the end of the day, time to go home.
Come for a ride with me on my motorcycle, he said. Bring her, she’ll be safe. I looked down. My mind swirled. I was torn. I can’t, I said. I really can’t. You sure? Yes, I’m sure. I can’t. Ok, he said. Silence…. Too bad, he said…. Well, anyway, he said…. I just came around to say goodbye to you.
I never saw him again.
I have a friend who says I’m too nice. That I shouldn’t let myself get called out. That I should stand firm on my positions and opinions. But everyone has their reasons and their frameworks. There’s always a story behind a story behind a story. We’re all just trying to get through life, whether it makes sense or not to other people, or even to ourselves sometimes.