"Begin with the dream," something told me-the muse, I presume-only it wasn't a dream. It was as real as the war, the very war I'd only just returned from less than six months ago. And tonight I lay against my pillow on my bed with this journal and a half-eaten bag of jelly beans. To tell this story. To share this blindingly dark tale with anyone who will take the precious time to read it-to desperately learn from it.
God I need a cigarette.
I might be at home on my bed at two in the morning, but I'm really out to sea again, my proverbial escape on the Good Ship Lifestyle (was that a song? I can't recall, but I made the ship mine nonetheless). This, being my needed escape where my thoughts become clear and unblemished by the world's pomposity. Here I can see nothing but the vastness of a world of ocean, under a night sky littered with sparkly jewels winking at me through the crystal unpolluted air. A light breeze catches the sails of my ship and the water world beneath me rolls gently. I close my eyes. I put a few jelly beans in my mouth with the tremor of a deep breath and…
I'm ready to remember now.
(Night of the Dream)
The first round of mortars hit just inside the FOB on the east side near the dining facility around 11:45 on the night of the dream. I was one of the few awake at that hour. Some were pulling security and guard duty. John Morris and Drake (I can't remember his first name right now) were playing spades by my rack.
The sirens didn't even sound until after the first ground-shaking explosion, but all three of us had M4s in hand and were out the door headed to the nearest bunker. We were trained well and moved with purpose. The daunting part was the exit into the open and the sprint to safety, which was relatively close but seemed to stretch farther the more we ran. Kind of like in a nightmare where the harder you try the further away you seem to get from haven.
The only seconds-ago quiet night was immediately filled with life-lights flashing, now wide-awake soldiers moving in unison, Sergeants shouting orders to move faster, the electronic warning system in between sirens informing "Rocket Attack! Rocket Attack!"
We were nearly to the bunker when the second set of mortars hit on the other side of the FOB, and the small arms fire erupted. Out of instinct we all hit the ground and I looked up to see a familiar building now demolished a couple hundred yards away, now a burning pile.
"Holy-!" said Drake, "That was the chapel!"
I didn't say anything, only got to my feet and pulled my friends along. This was a rare attack. Not just the mortars, that happened from time to time, but the spacing of the mortars indicated a team of insurgents outside the FOB attempting to cause damage and death from multiple locations. We'd learn later that no one had been killed or even injured that night, thankfully. But the chapel was in ruin and would have to be rebuilt. Chaplain Tansen was the usual smiling and uplifting encourager, protruding and exuberant nature while telling everyone that the old chapel needed new carpet anyway.
I tell this story not to recap what happened as a result of the attack on FOB Ramrod that night, but because it happens that this was the very night I had the dreamed the reverie that deepened my love for my wife forever..
I went to sleep that night listening to a song with these words, and the very next thing I knew was the dream…I'll always keep you inside, You healed my heart and my life, And you know I tried…
Julie is at work and I'm at the place we live-a two story house near a farm shared with two other families. Needs paint, new gutters and a month's worth of yard work, but it's a place to live, and our community funds keep the bills paid. But I'm not in the mood to give a damn. I'm owed something, and life hasn't paid off yet. Sure I have my wife and she's great for me, but after all these years what do I have to show for all my work, for all my sweat?
The sun is brighter today than I imagined it could be, expelling a deeper swelter than the forecast called for. I've been trying to get the alternator off our car for an hour now and it hasn't given me any leeway. I threw the wrench at it with vain hopes that it would magically pop off and switch out with the new one. Didn't happen. I looked up at the sun as if to let it know I was fuming before storming into the house.
Danny was at the table eating an I-don't-care-what-kind-of sandwich. He said something that sounded like he was trying to make a joke but I ignored him. I trailed the stairs and into my room. The stereo (one of our few actual nice possessions) was held up off the floor by two blue milk crates. Quickly, I scanned through a cd collection and fed one into the tray. I hit play and as "Seek and Destroy" began blaring I rotated the volume knob to its max and then leaned over my bed to the window and pushed it open.
When I was back out in the heat I felt a little better. The reverberations of an angry sounding Metallica controlled the air from my open window upstairs.
Hours later, and wife still not home, I stared at the finished alternator. I was looking down at the last of our money. Absolutely down to zero in the bank (God forbid, probably less than zero). Yet again. I dropped the hood and plopped into the driver seat, turning the key back just far enough to check the fuel level. Less than a quarter-much less.
"Hey Nick," someone said to me, walking up and leaning down to look at me through the open door. Shawn. The only one who lived in the house whose name was actually on the lease. I just looked back at him. "Hey, at least go turn the music down. You know Amanda works nights and sleeps during the day."
Oh yeah, I thought. The cd had been playing for quite some time on repeat.
"Yeah, sorry Shawn. Forgot about that."
"Need your part of the rent, too."
"On its way, promise."
I took the key out of the ignition after he walked off. When I got back upstairs, I killed the stereo and sat on the bed. Nick Sullivan. Unemployed. Broke. I took a vast breath thinking about all the pressure. The water was getting deeper and the scuba tank was nearly out of oxygen. At least Julie works, I thought. I'll get that job. It hadn't been for lack of effort; at least I didn't think so.
It was then I heard the sound of a car door closing, the sound of Julie thanking someone who'd given her the ride home. I met her downstairs just outside the kitchen door with a hug. "Need a shoulder rub, babe?"
"Like you can't imagine," she said, sitting at the dinette.
"Got the alternator on the damn car finally."
"Good," she began, but clenched her jaw and put her head down, her auburn hair falling into her face.
A sob escaped her lips, and though I circled her chair she turned her head from me.
"Hey- God what's wrong love?"
But I knew. Even when she spoke finally, I knew all too well what was wrong. Though together in our love, we were sinking into a pit in this world neither one of us could climb out of. Outside the kitchen window, an evening gale burst through from the oncoming twilight, the scent of pine needles heated by the earlier sun a reminder we were still here in this place. This hell hole. Trapped in a death trap, together, but trapped here nonetheless.
"It's too much," she said finally.
"I know. I feel it too. But-" I knelt in front of her. "I know it's about to turn around. I'm going to get that job. We just need one more of your checks before I finally get income for us. And Steve said he'd call tom—"
"I was fired today."
The anvil chained to my leg pulled me deeper into the abyss with those words.
"Who knows? Patty's had it in for me since day one." She looked up at me with reddened eyes. "She finally made good on her threats. Doesn't matter that all the customers gave me the highest compliments."
"I'm going down there." I stood, anger flaring with adrenaline.
"How?" She crossed her arms, using her sleeve first to wipe her face dry. "We don't even have enough gas in the car to get anywhere! I'm sorry-I love you so much-but we don't have any way of fighting back anymore. I know you'll get work, but not soon enough." A new sob cracked with the last word. "Now this…"
And I was suddenly the worst and most useless piece of crap on the face of the earth. I couldn't even provide my wife the basic essentials in life, like food and gas for the car. The car would go first, then. We were far too behind to catch up. The avalanche that was our lives built into an unstoppable monster in just a few moments. And the leviathan in the Deep waited eagerly with open jaws.
I obviously didn't go anywhere-how could I? We just cuddled together on our bed upstairs. No television or music entertained us. We just held each other in silent tears. My brain was a ceaseless barrage of ideas that would fall just short. Her Superman had no powers anymore. I cried with her until morning. Sometimes it's okay to cry, even when I was raised to believe real men aren't allowed that release.
We spent the next day at the kitchen table with some sense of hope, though we both knew its fuse was short. We scanned the newspapers for work. I called Steve-no answer-then called a few temp agencies. Shawn came into the kitchen. I know he was on the brink of inquiring about the rent again, but he must have picked up on the mood between us and instead feigned hunger and went to the fridge.
When evening finally came, I was scared to death one of us would break. But we only sat in each other's company and smiled when we had the strength to. Then her cell buzzed and I wondered how long we'd have those luxuries as well.
"Hello? Yes, this is Julie. Uh huh. Who is this again? Oh….hi! So how did you get my number anyway?" She was obviously told and looked over at me with annoyance. "Tonight? Well…I don't have the gas-oh." More waiting. I pointed curiously to the phone and she just held up a 'be patient' hand. "I guess I could. I'd have to ask Nick if it would be alright. Really-him too? I guess we'll be there then. Seven, right? 'Kay, bye."
Julie clicked the phone closed and put it in her pocket. "That was Mr. Barlow. He was our best customer at my work. He heard what happened to me, got my number from my ex-boss, and wants to know if we'll meet him."
"I think he wants to give me a job at his company. I'm not really sure. Maybe you too. Anyway, I agreed we'd meet at the Hotel Sheridan lobby where he holds his conferences, said he'd compensate for gas."
Desperation for a financial upside made me answer "yes" to that all-too-eagerly. I suddenly saw car payments, bill money and food.
I laughed. "Out of the blue, miracles out of nowhere babe."
"One of your favorite songs. Well, we'll find out at seven, won't we?" She said, and smiled a real smile even money couldn't afford.
When I cut the ignition to the car, relief swelled in my chest. Julie looked at me with wide eyes. We were on fumes (the drive to the Sheridan had been longer than we'd thought it would be) and lucky to have made it to the hotel parking lot. The old sedan's tired engine sighed and became still.
She nudged my hand as we neared the entrance and slid her soft fingers between mine. I squeezed and the automatic doors welcomed us with a warm rush of the lobby air. I, however, still wondered what we were about to hear. Faux ferns and ficus trees decorated the oak paneled lobby. The reception desk was ahead to the right and to the immediate left was a comfortable array of cushiony sofas and chairs, a few facing mounted flat screen plasmas. Maybe soon I could afford to get us one of those babies.
Mr. Barlow was sitting on one of the plasma-facing loveseats. I knew it was him because Julie guided me right to that spot. As we neared, I observed the gentleman: he was fiftyish, dressed impeccably in a sport coat and polo. He had a remarkable tan and a hue of gray highlighted the hair around his temples. Just the way he sat there watching MSNBC he radiated affluence. His head swiveled as we approached, smile broadening. Perfect white teeth, of course. Barlow stood.
"Julie, so very nice to see you again. And you must be the much talked of Nicholas." He extended his hand to me.
"Nick works for me," I said, gripping his hand in return.
"Excellent-well, I heard about your misfortunes of late. I also know, Nick, you're still seeking work." Barlow gestured to the sofa across from his (sat weirdly under the plasma at an angle as to be impossible to watch-then again, we weren't there for that). We all sat and I immediately noticed two medium-sized yellow envelopes lay on the coffee table between us. "I won't waste your time-I don't have jobs to offer, only an opportunity to use tonight as a possible stepping stone to help you both transition into a better situation until the great work you both do find comes along."
I knew the disappointment I felt was reflected in Julie's expression as well. No jobs tonight. Then what was this?
"No problem Mr. Barlow," Julie said with a smile nonetheless. "How can we help you then?"
"Richard, please. I feel old enough as it is." Barlow chuckled. "Here are two envelopes. One is yours just for coming, the one on the left, whether or not you agree to my offer. I took your time and gas so I owe that much. Go ahead." He gestured for me to take it. I did, and looked inside.
"Five hundred dollars?" Was all I could say. I showed Julie.
"Yes. Worth every cent. Even if you say no it's the least I could do if all I do is offend you two tonight. Which, I must say, I will truly regret if it happens."
I think we were both feeling a newer level of unease at that point. I sat the envelope back on the table. We'd seen enough movies. Money, hotel, a looming offer. I'd specifically seen Indecent Proposal. Barlow leaned forward. "Don't be frightened, guys. I'm not paying to sleep with Julie, or even try to, I should say."
"Then what?" she asked.
"I've always admired you, Julie. Nick, you have a wonderful woman with the warmest smile I've ever known. In all my dating and two marriages I have never found that. Admittedly, I am a man, and I do fantasize. We're all weak in some fashion, I guess."
We didn't speak-hell, this was his offer to pitch. So he laid it out finally. "Five thousand dollars. Second envelope. To spend one hour with Julie in a room above. No sex, no clothes removed. Only warm conversation, hopefully a few laughs and-forgive me-I'd very much like to kiss her a few times, hands never venturing anywhere more sensual than the neck or waist."
"For five grand," said Julie, a statement rather than a question. She just looked over at me, obviously bewildered and unsure of how to react. Maybe it wasn't sex, but it felt weird. Completely awkward.
"Only one hour of your life, Julie. Which," he began, looking at the clock, "would begin in ten minutes, should the two of you accept. So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to the bar for a drink while you discuss it. I'll take the second envelope and leave the first. It's yours already. If we have a deal, Julie meets me at the bar. If not, you two leave with the five hundred and simply go home." He nodded, smiled, then rose and headed away from the lobby.
It was just her and I now, and we both just stared at each other. Then surprisingly, we both laughed simultaneously. Worst case scenario we had food and gas money that could last a couple weeks now. Three, if we stretched the five hundred.
"I think we should do it," she said.
"You do?" Was all I could reply.
"Five hundred will help, sure, but ten times that will ensure we're okay until we find jobs. Really okay! It's not sex. Would you love me less if I do this?"
"Never, my love. Not a bit less. But it will kill me to know you had to do this because I screwed us up financially. Can you even trust this guy?"
My wife leaned back; she held the envelope that could take us straight home. I had to wonder if she really did think I was a screw-up. A total failure. Her hair hung in her face, and when she brushed it away all I could feel was a deep love and affection for her. I wanted to pull her up and take her away from the Sheridan. Home. Yet I felt powerless in the dim shadow of our struggles of late.
"I trust him. I'm going to do it. It's not that big a deal anyway, right?"
"I guess not," I couldn't believe myself! "But if he breaks the rules, I swear I'll—"
"He won't," she leaned in and kissed me. "I'm a big girl, I can handle it. I love you so much Nick Sullivan."
"I'm staying right here the whole time. Until you come back to me. Okay? Are you sure?"
We stared into each other's eyes one more time and with a deeper kiss this time, she stood and went to meet Barlow. Richard. I looked at the clock-five till. The hour started soon. I couldn't see the pair after they rounded the corner to the elevators. This was going to be the most powerless and longest hour of my life. So I stood and paced. Tried to watch MSNBC. That shit wasn't going to happen. I pulled out my phone and attempted to play a game. No go. I looked up at the clock- it had only been three minutes! Was I on the edge of heaven, or on the cliffs of hell? Was Julie-my best friend on earth-even okay? Did she think I sold her out by agreeing to this? Was this the way a man provides for his wife? And a million endless questions interrogated my growing guilt.
Beads of sweat pebbled my forehead-I brushed them away and breathed. Sat down, head in my hands. I tried to will time to move faster.
I'm supposed to protect my wife. Love and respect her. Be her hero, her everything. Like she is to me.
It's a Test.
She's doing this for us!
I picked up the envelope, feeling the five hundred and thinking of the amount ten times that we were about to take home in- clock check –forty minutes still! I turn the envelope over and see on the back is the room number, scrawled there for whatever reason. And as I stand, five words propel me away from the sofa.
She. Is. Not. For. Sale!
So I sprinted to the elevator. I was inside. I was on the floor. I was right outside the room-drunk on a passion for Julie I'd never known I harbored. It felt like a dream as I pounded on the door. When it wasn't opened immediately I feared the worst: they were naked and wrapped deep within the throws of passion and sheets.
"Ju-!" And the door opened. Barlow stood there, rubbing his jaw.
"I…was wrong," and he walked out, but before he could pass me I shoved the envelope at him. He said something but the words didn't register. I entered the room.
"Julie." And there she was. Very much okay. Just sitting there on the edge of the bed, eyes closed. Then she opened them and looked up at me, and smiled.
"Told you I was a big girl," she laughed. "But- you came up here to rescue me! Didn't you?"
"I love you, Julie. I couldn't sell you out for just one moment in eternity." We embraced and cried with the tears of a love tested and perfected by fire.
"He leaned to kiss me and I hit him!"
"His problem," I said, pulling her up. We walked outside the hotel never seeing Richard Barlow and stopped when we approached the car.
"We have no money and no gas," said Julie.
"Who cares," I laughed. "Let's just walk. Whatever adventure we have we'll be together. And I know for the first time we'll be okay too."
Hand in hand, we did walk, happier than we'd ever been in our lives.
I awoke then, tears streaming down my face for the heightened love I felt for my perfect wife. I couldn't wait to get to the computer and call home for a video chat-see and hear her again. I swelled with the love that could only come from heaven.
But when I finally got that opportunity, I got the news: Julie was missing. Between her friends, her job and the police…no one knew where she was.