Don’t die for me. One year ago to the minute Pauline had thought those exact words and now, during the minute of silence in honor of fallen soldiers, she thought them again. Students all stood with their heads bowed, supposedly praying or at least thinking about men and women who had had been shot, eviscerated, decapitated, wrenched apart, torn and tattered over the past hundred years, all sacrificing themselves for their country. Their knowledge of war did not extend beyond the Iraqi invasion and Afghanistan. True, a young reservist had enrolled in her class: Gabriel, a sweet boy. True, the parents and grandparents of some had experienced World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. But as they shuffled and coughed, and the three girls in the back row carried on a whispered conversation, Pauline attempted to deflect an urge to cry. Most of her students understood nothing about the texture of blood and the pain of fiery flesh. They knew only what they experienced virtually, on their computers.
How long did a minute, spent in private grief, last? Last year she could not answer. This year, she’d say it lasted a lifetime. She lowered her head again, noting a water stain on her blue silk blouse. She became aware of her duty to act as a role model, show by personal example, proper deference. She did not herself pray to any imaginable deity.
Noticing again the three girls in the back row, she thought it would be unwise to break the enforced moment of respect by telling those obnoxious girls to shut the hell up. Startled by the sound of profanity in her head, as if she had in fact spoken aloud, Pauline drew comfort from anger. This, too, she had learned: rage supplanted images of a husband disemboweled on a dusty road, curled up like a baby, howling.
Yes, things were not supposed to turn out this way, although Philippe had always joked about the hoochie, the “pup” tent issued to soldiers that could double as a body bag. Before he bled to death, since help had not been immediately forthcoming, Philippe had slept in a tent with her best friend that August weekend when he had lied to her about the end date of his training exercises at Val Cartier, outside of Quebec City. That was not supposed to happen either, but Philippe, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to his country and Queen, had broken his vow to her: fidelity ‘till death did them part.
They had fought. She had kicked him out of the flat, allowed him back in, refused to let him make love to her, not knowing whether to forgive and forget, or to divorce. The momentary affair had been a mistake, he had plead; a foolish one, he didn’t know why he did it, it didn’t mean anything. All the old standard arguments used by men who betrayed their women. The army sent him to Afghanistan in September after Labor Day. One month later, fully clothed in camouflage, his body mounted with military gear, sunglasses like giant black bug eyes shielding him from glare and sand, Philippe stepped on an IED, and … separated. She had successfully controlled her emotions during that first minute of silence in class last year.
The weekend before deployment, he had wanted to bring his wife’s body close to his; to kiss and tongue, to caress and insist, wind her long black hair around his hands. Oh, sweet mercy, the things he could have done. He had such imagination, such power and gentleness combined.
“I wish you’d die!” she had screamed as he'd packed his rucksack, the last words she had spoken to him.
Pauline felt her body weaken in front of her class. Oh, forever that first minute lasted. What respite between then and now? One did one’s duty, she was a dedicated teacher, but daily she was reminded of young men going off to war in Afghanistan and bleeding.
Eternity passed and the class resumed. Pauline could not concentrate on mathematical syllogisms, so she let the students out of class early. Gabriel approached, having stayed behind until the others left. He had always been respectful, a sturdy boy with dusty brown hair and blue eyes, who lugged a huge backpack stuffed with books and a laptop. Since he had told her about his being in the reserves and his aspirations for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she had struggled with a desire to embrace and to reject him, and several times had corrected the false impression that he looked like a younger version of Philippe. Everyone, of course, knew about Philippe dying in Afghanistan. On television news he had become an instant hero and she had to conduct herself accordingly.
“Can we talk? I have something important to say.”
Gabriel began dropping by her office after the beginning of the semester, at first to discuss calculus, which gave him difficulty, and then, as he became comfortable within a matter of weeks, the war and his own military dreams. Now, sitting next to her chair in the office, he began ever so gently, “I’m going to Afghanistan.”
Her heart did not reveal its agony. Begging her forgiveness, he continued “You see, I have this girlfriend … and she … and since you’ve lost … I mean …” his embarrassment was as heavy as his backpack.
Moved to pity, Pauline alleviated the boy’s awkwardness. “It’s okay, Gabriel, say what you need to, I understand.”
He had already arranged matters with the registrar, deferred credits available to reservists, and, having just turned eighteen, he had accepted his first tour of duty before Christmas. Would she phone his girlfriend if anything happened?
Yes, and he gave her a piece of paper, a note with his girlfriend’s name and number already written down.
Standing together, she looked directly into his eyes, the same color as Philippe’s. They remained silent. Prepared to leave, he had first hoisted his pack, then, placed it on the seat, so he could face his teacher unencumbered. She held the green note. Really, she could no longer regard Gabriel as her student, not when he was about to sacrifice himself for her. How sweet. She touched his cheek. Her fingertips sensed the flow of warm blood beneath his skin. When she pressed her lips against his, Gabriel did not step back, did not refuse the kiss. She felt the pressure of his hands on her lower back, his body pushing hers against the desk, the kiss more eager. Such a strong body, she thought, as strong as her husband’s. How long had it been since she had reveled in such an embrace? Oh, Gabriel’s kiss, the eager tongue—the last kiss she had not given Philippe.
When he began insisting, Pauline placed her hand between their mouths and said quietly, lovingly, “No, not now.” How beautiful his young face when he blushed. “Thank you for trusting me, Gabriel, but you must go.”
“May I write you, Pauline?” She noted the use of her first name.
Stroking his cheek again, wishing for more kisses, “Yes, yes.”
“Will you write back?”
“My dear Gabriel, of course, I will.”
As she watched the boy gather together his feelings and his backpack, giving her one last desirous look before he went out of her office, Pauline clenched the note in her hand, bowed her head for a minute and repeated silently, Oh please don’t die for me.
© 2009 Kenneth Radu. All rights reserved.