The thin red line of before and after:
People think of a line as stable. Sometimes it is. It can set. But it doesn’t start out that way. I guess it’s the same way people think of staying still as stable. It’s hard to stay exactly still. Not even a tremor. Not even the in and out of breath. We’re meant to move. That’s how bodies are built. Once you’re still, completely still, that’s the line you don’t want. That’s the line someone else will have to haul your body over.
You get to know the befores. They’re hard to catch when they pass. But you get to know them later. You get to tell time by them. Life was one way. Then the thing. Then life is something else. It doesn’t have to be better or worse. It doesn’t even have to be big. But you get to see it over time. Bring it into focus.
There’s the time before knowing her. The time before leaving. The time before coming home. And the time before this. There’ll be more down the road. I can’t see it all from here. I need a horizon. Something to line up against.
Before the accident I was not exactly waiting. Before the accident I was at a loss. I knew I was lucky. People told me and I knew it was true. But I also knew I wasn’t right. I would go to groups at the VA. We’d sit in a circle and guys would talk about what they’d seen and what they knew. It wasn’t like that for me. I don’t know why I came home with a body and other guys got hurt. It’s not easy to talk about in a room of broken men. Guys on crutches. In wheelchairs. Guys with compression bandages holding their skin together. They’d tell me I was lucky. And I’d say I guess I was. But that didn’t help me understand.
Everyone struggles with return. We all have our ways. Invisible triggers. Usually in a room of twenty guys, there’s only four or five who are working. And mostly they’re still in. Some kind of desk job, but still in. Still able to serve. There’s maybe another four or five with physical injuries keeping them busy. Keeping them working at being a body. And then the rest of us caught on the insides. Caught in some moment or series of moments. Playing over and over. Bringing us back. Keeping us from coming home.
I notice the patterns. Each one unique. There’s a woman who repeats the last word of whoever speaks before her. Just a whisper. Just a start. There’s an older guy who jerks his head to the left. Three staccato pulls then back to center. There’s a flyer on the community board about PTSD. Little phone numbers to tear off and keep. I count the ones already gone and the ones remaining. Make a pattern I can stand.
I know it’s Tuesday or Thursday if a volunteer helps me into a chair, wheels me down to a meeting. I go five weeks without speaking. Everyone looks to the bandages. As if harm is visible. Even though we’re all the same. Night sweats and sudden fists. Words we cannot keep from shouting.
When I told the counselor I didn’t need the arm, she said It’s not uncommon. Survivor’s guilt. But I always meant to survive. Always took it as a given. I told her that. I told her I didn’t feel bad about coming home. I was just confused by mirrors. I didn’t fit inside my frame.
The counselor told me It’s not uncommon. Post traumatic stress disorder, she called it. Who didn’t wake up to sirens or lights? Who didn’t break a shoelace and think it was an omen? It fucks you up. It fucks you up more in the after than the before.
I see it in the other guys too. Traces of repetition. Everyone’s a different version. Everyone’s a different scale. There’s a guy at the Tuesday meetings who pulls at his hair. Plucks it out one strand at a time. Then lines the hair up on his leg. Tries to get the pieces parallel. There’s a guy who can’t stand the dirt. Says it reminds him of being there. Of never being able to get clean or stay clean. And so now his hands are raw pink. Broken skin. And he still can’t stop scrubbing. Can’t stop reminding himself he’s home now. He’s clean.
People talk about the drones. About a guy sitting in Kansas blowing up a warehouse in Kabul. I don’t know if it’s right, but it might be better. He probably still wakes up nights seeing faces he’s never seen. But it’s better than knowing. He doesn’t have to worry that the guy at the next cubicle is about to blow sky high. He doesn’t have to worry if his feet have been wet too long or if the line will be down when he tries to call home. He can get up and make espresso. He can go use the bathroom. He might have just killed ten civilians. But he doesn’t have to know. He doesn’t have to see their torn faces and he doesn’t have to know.
Lisa Birman is a poet and novelist. She has just published her first novel, How To Walk Away (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015).
Lisa is the author of the poetry collection For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press), and co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House Press). Her work has appeared in a wide range of well-respected poetry journals and she has published several chapbooks of poetry, including deportation poems and a trilogy of chapbooks in collaboration with Berlin-based singer/songwriter Josepha Conrad.
Lisa has been teaching writing in the United States, Australia, and the Czech Republic for the past fifteen years. She served as the Director of the prestigious Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics for twelve years and continues to teach for the MFA in Creative Writing.
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Lisa moved to New York via Seattle in 1995. She moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1997 to pursue her MFA in Writing and Poetics. Now a dual citizen, she’s still Australian at heart and often trades the Colorado winter for a few months of Melbourne summer to spend time with her family.
Lisa resides in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the editor of a forthcoming collection of letters from Frances LeFevre Waldman to poet Anne Waldman, Dearest Annie, You wanted a report on Berkson’s class (Hanging Loose Press), and is currently completing her second novel.
Beth Couture‘s work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. She is currently working on her MSS at Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia.