Just grazing my left ear, the wineglass shattered as it impacted the oak paneled wall behind me.
“Anyone who ever had a heart wouldn’t turn around and break it.” Sarah almost sang it as she cried.
Oh, God. Here she goes again with the lyrics. A memory of a nearly violent argument with her in a bar in Boise about the merits of the Velvet Underground also flashed through my head. She had been ready to tear out the hair of a sorority girl for playing “Heroin” on the jukebox. But Cowboy Junkies redid “Sweet Jane” sometime in the late eighties, I remembered, so the lyric made sense. I hated Sarah, there was no doubt of that, but I could never stop being impressed with the way she could throw out the perfect lyric at just the right moment in any situation.
I ran a thousand song bits through my head, hoping for a piercing rebuttal, but I couldn’t escape the Velvet Underground’s influence and all those bits somehow kept coming back to “The Black Angel’s Death Song” which, of course, wasn’t appropriate.
“I’d apologize for hurting you, if I cared,” was what finally came out.
Her eyes stabbed back, the laser-eyed stare that only came out in these extreme sorts of circumstances and made me question whether I had ever really known this woman I had, perhaps, loved for the past two years. Then she cried a little louder and ran to the back of the apartment.
“Damn, that actually worked,” I said aloud to no one in particular. I was stunned and it took a moment to realize I could just walk out the door and put this whole episode behind me. I had never won a fight with Sarah, and the feeling of triumph was a little overwhelming. Standing in her living room with my hands on my hips, I stared at the shattered glass of the coffee table and shook my head to try and clear the fog of my astonishment. I turned for the door, opened it and said mock-wistfully, “Good-bye, my love,” only a whisper since the comment could be directed at no one, before slamming the door behind.
Music had brought us together, the mutual realization of the connection of artist and muse. I would actually tell people that, realizing just how nineteenth-century it sounded. But before long I faced the possibility that this beautiful girl was no Calliope or Erato. Sarah was the Medusa, slowly, patiently, and willfully turning my being to stone.
Now, released from the gaze, I walked through the cool mists of the late spring evening, singing quietly to myself, for myself, and feeling lighter than air. I wasn’t happy. It was disorienting and uncomfortable, this sublimation, this new state of being, the thought of waking up in the morning, not just by myself, but actually, truly alone. Despite the doubts and fears, I knew I had to find myself, to define myself on my own terms, not on Sarah’s.
I climbed the steps of my building and walked to the door of my apartment. A FedEx envelope leaned against the front door. My heart nearly stopped when I picked it up and read the return address—United States Army Human Resources Command.
After standing there a full minute, just staring at the envelope, I unlocked the door and walked inside to the kitchen where I laid it on the counter. I poured a tall glass of bourbon and just eyed the package for a moment. I’d been hearing stories of the “back door draft,” and so I knew full well the envelope’s contents, yet hoped it might be otherwise. After a deep breath and a big swallow of the drink, I very slowly and methodically opened the envelope. I pulled out the letter, my hands shaking, but I couldn’t help but wonder what lyric Sarah might serve up at that moment. Here, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” could have been perfect. A less vindictive Sarah might invoke Radiohead: “Karma police, arrest this man.” Or drawl like Johnny Cash: “Mama told you son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.” As angry as she surely was, it would sting far deeper, a line with no artistic merit: Justin Timberlake to Britney Spears, “Cry me a river.”
But all thoughts of Sarah’s vindictiveness left my mind as I finally focused on the text, and my new hopes of self-discovery were crushed in the full body blow of the letter’s intent:
PURSUANT TO PRESIDENTIAL EXECUTIVE ORDER OF 14 SEP 2001, YOU ARE RELIEVED FROM YOUR PRESENT RESERVE COMPONENT STATUS AND ARE ORDERED TO REPORT FOR A PERIOD OF ACTIVE DUTY…
James Beneda served eight years of active duty over three separate enlistments in the US Army. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the 101st Airborne Division, and again in 2007 with the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion. He recently completed a Ph.D. in Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied traumatic experience in relation to military culture.