In an anticipated post-holiday business slump, I played to an audience of one, Blake, during my final hour of my Tuesday night closing shift. After giving him a ride home, I slipped into the Grenadier for a beer and a chance to review my file for a morning hearing. With my file in my lap and a beer in my hand, my eyes focused on the game of Candy Crush open in front of me, I pretended not to hear the man to my right.
"Is that an interesting game? What level are you on? Are you really playing right now?" The music was just loud enough that I could get away with ignoring him, until he suggested to his friend that they leave and I sunk back into my stool and relaxed.
"It's a slow night," the man to my left muttered, to no one in particular. In the background, Big Sean was advising listeners that he don't give a fuck about some stupid ass little bitch.
"At least we have this fantastic music to entertain us," I responded.
"This?" he looked at me, appalled. I returned his look with my characteristic deadpan stare. "Oh. Sarcasm. That's the most you've said all night!" I shrugged. He offered his hand for a shake. "I'm John."
"Andrea." Over the course of a beer I learned that John had recently retired after 18 years with the Marine Corp.
"Thank you for your service."
"I don't think you should thank people for doing their job."
"Thank you anyway."
"I don't thank you for your job."
"My job is thankless."
We both shrugged in implied agreement to move on in the conversation.
"What was your title?" I asked.
"All 18 years? Well, did they train you in a skill or trade?"
"They taught me how to kill people. I'm really good at killing people." I was unsure whether I was supposed to be shocked or scared, but I was neither, so I simply asked, "How many people have you killed?"
John thought for a moment, as I wondered if any number he threw at me would be sincere, if he had to take the time to reflect on it. I would think the answer would roll of one's tongue as easily as if someone asks how many children one has. Then I recalled that that answer isn't always easy, either.
"Eleven." I rewarded him with another blank stare. "People ask if I feel bad about killing another person, but I really don't. When someone is standing in front of you pointing a gun and it's you or them. . ."
"If it's you or me, I'm always going to pick me," I interrupted.
I've never faced the barrel end of a gun, but the times I'd been under fire clicked across my brain like a slide show:
"Go ahead and yell for help. There's three of us here, and we all three heard you yell yes."
"Ma'am, he's down. He's been down for a couple of days. Should we call someone for you?"
". . . incompatible with life. . ."
"Andrea, I know this is hard. Did you notice what time it was when Gabriel passed?"
Bang! "I don't love you anymore." Bang! "I'm moving out." Bang! "I'm going to South Carolina."
As the truck turned the corner from Radcliffe to Haley for the last time, I remained, barely breathing, almost dead, knowing that if I were to rise again, if I were to go on living, I must become bulletproof.
As I returned to the present I realized that beside me, John was still talking about his life after retiring from the military. He'd found an easy job, where he could just sit. He hadn't had any problems adjusting to civilian life. I envied the man that had killed eleven people. John had survived, and compartmentalized those events. They didn't trouble him, because they were not, in his mind, choices. He exhibited no behaviors indicating stress. He didn't seem preoccupied by the door, or the small crowd, or the trickle of people who came and went. He was not jumpy, or nervous, or defensive. Or if he was, he had become very good at hiding it.
I, on the other hand, have yet to grasp the art of resilience. In a sort of preemptive strike, I test the limits of love and loyalty. While I want to shed the armor that protects me, its place has a purpose. My heart can't survive one more assault. If it's you, or me, I have to pick me.
That night when I got home I made my way down the hall, into the nursery, to peer into the crib containing the little girl that fills my heart with fear. Curled up on her side and clinging to her security blanket she hardly looked as powerful as she actually is, but she alone could bring my life to an end. Upon her, my hopes and dreams and faith delicately rest. Around her, our family is built. She set into motion a life that I had longed for and as she leads, Marcos at her side, I fall behind, still afraid to stand too close. Eden and Marcos are the most powerful people in my world and before them I am defenseless. My only hope is to rely on them, shield myself with their love, and trust that they will never wound me.