Better This Way – Grace Messimer

 

The last time I saw him, he was shutting the door of his apartment behind me. “You’ll call, right?” I asked him.

“Of course. I’m sorry this has to happen, Nathalia.” I had nodded, knowing that it wasn’t his fault. And then, before he could see me cry, I turned around and left. That was six years ago.

But here he was, at the local coffeehouse. I stared at the back of his head, his dark brown hair longer than I remembered. He was using the espresso machine when he looked into the mirror in front of him, and we locked eyes. “Nathalia?” he asked me, but I was already turning and walking out the door.

My feet hit the sidewalk hard as I tried to shake the thought of Alexander out of my mind. But I couldn’t. He was alive. FIve years ago, I had convinced myself that I would see him again. Anxiety rose in my throat, and could feel my heart begin to race and my palms grow clammy. I stumbled onto a bench off of the sidewalk facing the busy street and placed my face into my hands.

I didn’t know how long I had been there, if it had been a few minutes or an hour, but I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Thalia?” The voice was soft, and I shook my head.

I prayed he wouldn’t talk to me. I kept my eyes shut against my hands, my plastic-framed glasses digging into the bridge of my nose. And then his familiar weight settled on the opposite side of the old wooden bench and I couldn’t hold back my accusation any longer.

“How could you?” I demanded, my voice so hushed I wasn’t sure he would hear me. I tried to focus on something to distract me, like the untied shoelace on my brown boot, or the small hole in my black tights. Alexander had no answer.

I faced him, tears pricking the back of my eyes. “I thought you were dead,” I confessed, my voice cracking as a sob tried to escape from my throat. I choked it back, taking deep breaths.

“I thought it was better off that way,” Alexander retorted, his voice defensive. I let out a sharp laugh, as if the situation was funny.

‘Better off that way?’ Alexander, I thought you died. I had to convince myself that I was never going to see you and would never know what happened. How do you possibly think that this is better than whatever scared you so much? If you didn’t want to see you anymore, you could’ve at least broken up with me like a normal person.” My voice was shrill, fury creeping into my voice. All tears that I was afraid would fall were gone.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he sighed, running a hand through his curly hair.

“Try me.”

“Nathalia, I was ashamed of who I was back then. I figured it would be easier for you to believe I was dead than to face the fact that I was a coward.” He spat the last word out. Coward.

“How dare you ‘figure that’ your cowardice was too much for me to handle! I handled your deployment with minimal tears, but you thought I would handle your ‘death’ better than you doing…what, exactly?”

Alexander was silent for a moment, his head in his hands the way mine had been moments ago. “I deserted,”  he finally sighed. He sounded tired, like discussing this was too much for him. I didn’t care.

“You what?” I sounded incredulous, almost as if I were on the verge of anger.  Alexander flinched.

“This is why I didn’t tell you,” he groaned, but then continued. “I was sick of it. I didn’t want to fight in a war I didn’t believe in anymore. There was – is – no point in me giving my life for something I don’t believe in.”

I thought back to the beginning of the war, before Alexander left. We had been watching the news on his living room couch when it was announced. “Breaking news tonight, war has officially broken out in Iraq,” a reporter started, her voice serious. “President Bush signed the authorization of military force over five months ago, and the U.S. launched its first attack early this morning.”

My entire body had gone numb as I turned to Alexander, his arm still wrapped around my shoulders. I couldn’t choke out anything, my throat closing up. “It will be okay,” he had told me. That felt like a million years now. I snap back to reality, where Alexander is still staring at me, waiting for a response.

“I don’t even care about you deserting!” I practically shouted, eliciting the attention of restaurant diners across the street. I didn’t care. “Neither of us agreed with it, but you don’t see me fleeing the country and leaving my significant other,” I shot back. “I didn’t like the idea of wasting American lives either. But we both knew that this was a threat when you enlisted back in college. Alexander, all I’m asking for is an explanation. Why didn’t you come back? Or at least call me?”

“I didn’t want you to be ashamed of me,” Alexander responded, his voice guilty.

“I wouldn’t have been ashamed of you,” I shot back, my tone falsely calm. “Did you know that I looked for your name in the obituaries every day? That whenever there was a knock on my door, I feared that it was going to be soldiers arriving with a folded flag and an apology? I was too afraid to drive by your apartment because I thought I’d see your brother packing up your stuff, or that I’d see a ‘for sale’ sign and know that you were gone.” He was silent, and with every passing second I fumed more. After a full minute of waiting for some sort of response – any response – I stood up and grabbed my small bag, walking back down the sidewalk.

“Wait!” I heard behind me.

“I’m late for a meeting. I shouldn’t have stayed here this long. I have to go,” I called back, and I hoped the flagrancy of my lie would hurt him.

Footsteps fell behind me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I whipped around, glaring. “What could you possibly want now?” I asked, furious.

“Nathalia, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that I put you through that. I know I was childish, I knew even as I was doing this that it was a bad idea to return home after so long. I lived in different cities hoping I would catch a glimpse of you, but also so terrified of what would happen if I did. It was a mistake.” Alexander’s face was sorrowful, his eyes downcast and his lips pinched into a frown.

“Yes, it was,” I replied coolly, turning back around. “Now please, if you care about me at all, don’t follow me. It’s better this way.” And once again, just like I had done five years ago, I prayed he wouldn’t see my tears.

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