‘Dying is easy — I do it every day,” grunted Otto, a burly man of expletory shrewdness neighboring my seat in the waiting room of Lincoln City Hospital. I could not recall if a preceding question had been asked — particularly not from me.
I leaned in, taken aback with spellbound curiosity.
“I’m still alive, aren’t I? Living scares me to death!”
Smiling politely, I shifted away from him toward the other side of my chair, with the palm of my hand cloaking my nostrils from the pungent stench of smoke emanating as he spoke.
“Been waiting to see my sister for 40 minutes. They ain’t got no respect in these places. Got me itchin’ for a cig — I’m quittin’, you know,” he barked in broken English. Swaying his head impatiently, he continued, “been using the patch.”
“Too bad you don’t use it on your mouth,” I pondered silently, as he continued.
“It’s freezing in here! Sorry — mum’s the word,” Otto smirked, gesturing towards the stranger to my left, whom he recently noticed to be in deep prayer.
The fair-headed man had a thin face and a noticeably receding hairline. He wore dark shades and grasped a black, wooden cross of a multilayered necklace chain. He muttered inaudible words, clearly unfazed by the babble to my right, with tears leaking past the confines of his frames.
The room was, in fact, uncomfortably frigid, and quite empty, as can be expected at 2 a.m. It was just the three of us. The spongy, indigo chairs contrasted the beige walls, with murmurs of the local news anchor whirring from the antiquated television.
Feeling a bit peckish, I fruitlessly examined the room further for any sign of an epicurean refuge. By happenstance, I reached inside my jacket pocket and was pleasantly surprised to find a miniature bottle of apple schnapps. A wretched comfort, indeed, pining at the mere sight of the familiar liquid encased within the petite contour. My fingers writhed in pain as I attempted to twist open the bottle — its contents a mere drop in the bucket compared to my faithful flask of bourbon dormant in a sachet at the base.
I didn’t mind the cold — a welcome distraction from the certainties and doubts clouding the dull, aching void within me. As people we are attracted to light, but it is the darkness that holds us captive. It is lost to the abyss, a mimicking nothingness. She was my light in the darkness — a fire that burned within; the harder I tried to put it out, the more it managed to consume me.
I longed to feel again. I longed for her. All at once, memories zipped through to my consciousness.
* * * * *
“Are you afraid that I’ll see the real you?” Antonina inquired, as we walked down the street after the service. We walked often, since the very first time we met at the local church near my bridge.
“I’m not afraid. But I think you should be,” I replied, with a perturbed smirk on my face. “If you really want to know where I live, I’ll take you there,” I added, surprising myself as I spoke the words.
“Let’s go!” she rejoiced, grabbing my hand and propelling me forward.
“Okay — it’s the other way though, near the church,” I quaked, with a disagreeable knot twisting inside my gut. I had been homeless for almost a year, a secret I did not share with anybody. But, for some reason, I trusted her. We reached the underpass and approached the rustic, poorly lit recess containing my shack, hand-made with wood.
As we drew nearer, she loosened her grip on my hand, and slowly stopped walking. Her face gleamed of an indiscriminate sorrow, and her body mirrored that of an asthmatic. Moments later, she grabbed my hand again and clutched it tighter than before. And with that she introduced courage within my soul, as pure as the ocean waves.
I turned to her and proclaimed, “one day I will give you the world.”
* * * * *
With intensifying fatigue, I gathered my things in a preamble to making a beeline to the hospital elevator. Suddenly, a blond nurse, of pudgy stature, came into the room. She wore a white, knee-length uniform with an embroidered tuck-waist and a button-black belt. Her bifocals hung off the bridge of her nose, as she glared at the folder in her hand. With a subtle grimace, she summoned Otto, motioning him to follow her. She left, almost suspiciously, without any word on Antonina.
I wriggled out of my chair with an unnerving desire to escape the surrounding walls, shrieking at me to elude impending sorrow. I didn’t deserve to be here. I reminisced on all of those dark nights — in front of the fire underneath the overpass at the edge of town. Nights when the only ink left to write with were the tears that stained my lips shut. I will always remember how she helped me to forget. She held the broken pieces of my being and fought to put me back together again. In return, I decided that my absence was the best gift I could give her.
* * * * *
“Don’t ever stop falling in love with me,” Antonina whispered, with the gentle caress of dawn coating over her body as she lay on the grass facing the heavens.
We had stayed up late sharing stories throughout the night — our first night of cohabitation. It was also the first time I had slept under a roof in quite a long time. I missed the sunrise, due to gazing at the stunning beauty in front of me. Her lids flickered restlessly, shuttering over her cornflower eyes matched only by the powder blue of morning spread across the sky.
“I’m getting deployed to Afghanistan next month,” I revealed, joining her on the grass.
“I know — I saw the letter last week.”
“I didn’t know how to tell —”
“Just come back,” she groaned, “come back the same you. It’s so easy to change.”
I pray every day to be given a chance to rewind time and comfort her in those moments of meaningful silence that I chose in place of meaningless words. She was listening — but for words that never came.
She was my why to live — a perfect reflection of my scars, standing between me and my demons. I wanted to contribute to society by serving my country. As a consequence, I broke her heart, and in turn, my own.
* * * * *
I gazed at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. A travesty of my former self, my knees began to buckle.
“Not easy, is it?” grinned my fair-headed neighbor, stepping out of the stall. “Sometimes it’s tough to bear the responsibility of being yourself. What’s your name, young man?”
“Matthews, sir. Charley,” I replied.
“I’m Robert,” nice to meet you, he remarked, taking off his sunglasses. To my astonishment, he had a missing left eye; the concave socket looked layered with skin-like tissue. As he turned on the faucet, he continued, “it’s much easier to be somebody else, ain’t it?”
I turned away in silence.
“Look, I don’t know what your story is, but it’s gonna be alright.” Pointing to his eye, he said, “malignant melanoma — it could have spread to my whole face, but it didn’t. I don’t worry about what could have been — I worry about the here and now.”
* * * * *
The doorbell rang at about 5 o’clock in the evening. Antonina answered the door, and before her stood a towering figure, adorned in U.S. Army dress blues.
“Ma’am, the Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that Charley Matthews was killed in action during an operation in Afghanistan on August 25. There is an ongoing investigation.”
She fell to one knee, emotionless. A few seconds later she fainted, and regained consciousness on her couch, with the aid of the army medic who regularly accompanies the casualty notification officers.
I officially died at 4:24 p.m.
* * * * *
Walking back to my spongy seat, the time was now 4 a.m. My thoughts raced with an epiphany blooming within like a flower reaching for the sun. As I glared at Robert holding onto his cross, the interwoven symphony of time and life became clear. One leaving you with scars, the other with wrinkles. Either way, the present is all that matters. Suddenly, a brown-haired nurse in a familiar embroidered tuck-waist white uniform entered the room, walking toward the elevator at the end of her shift.
I stood up and placed my white service cap on my head, and called her name. “Antonina.”
She looked at my direction, dropped all of her belongings, and walked up to me. The onrush of emotions inflated her lungs. She touched my face, scarred with 22 lacerations from the explosion a month ago. She felt my body, wondering if I was real and caressed the stub on my left arm, ripped off from above the elbow.
“They were wrong,” I stammered. “I’m sorry because I said wouldn’t change—” She slapped me in the face with a fury no bomb could match.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” she commanded, sobbing tears of joy into my chest, “You haven’t changed one damn bit. I never saw you with only my eyes.” As she squeezed me uncontrollably, the darkness silently retreated from my heart, like a fading breeze on the shore.
She continued, “I don’t want you to give me the world. I just want you to share it with me.”
Aspiring author O.C. Ezeadi is a finance manager at Novo Nordisk by day and wordsmith by night.