I was at Fort Drum in upstate New York last year when it really hit me. I don’t know if it was because I was getting ready to go to war and was nervous or because I watched the sun rise every morning at first formation, and that always reminded me of Kathryn. Either way, all I knew for certain was that I was still in love with her, and I had to get her back into my life.
For a long time I had this crazy idea I could change the world if I just worked hard enough. The downside of having that idea is that it took me away from home for long periods of time.
I dated Kathryn while I volunteered on the fire-and-rescue department, while I traveled the country for seven months with AmeriCorps, and while I was away for five months at basic training.
Kathryn was always at home waiting for me. All told, I was away for an entire year of the 2 1/2 years we dated.
I met Kathryn when I was 22 and she was 18. The short version of our story sounds great: Her house caught fire, and I was in the fire department.
The long story is less romantic: I wasn’t on the call, and she wasn’t even home. She messaged me on Facebook a few days later when she saw a comment I left about the fire department on a mutual friend’s wall. We chatted online for a few days, then texted, then saw a movie and had lunch, and that was the start of her first relationship and my longest.
We went to the beach and swam, held hands at the Fourth of July fireworks, went on roller coasters at Six Flags, ate Thanksgiving dinner with each other’s families, exchanged gifts on Christmas. We cried when I had to leave for long periods of time.
When I got back from basic training a couple of years ago, I felt different, as if I was doing things with my life and Kathryn wasn’t. So I broke up with her. She was crushed, but she didn’t try very hard to change my mind. Maybe she knew me well enough to know that when I decide to do something, there is no stopping me.
A few months later, in December, something bigger did happen. My National Guard unit was selected for deployment to Afghanistan. Suddenly our monthly drills got more intense, and our annual two weeks of training that summer made me think over what was good in my life.
I called Kathryn and told her I was still in love with her, and I was a fool to have let her go. She said she had a new boyfriend and was happy with him and didn’t want me back.
I looked on her Facebook page and saw pictures of him and her swimming at the beach and riding the roller coasters at Six Flags. Even though Kathryn said she didn’t want me back, she entertained the texts I sent saying I loved her.
One day her boyfriend went through her phone and saw the texts, and their relationship ended. Two weeks later, our new relationship started.
A new relationship unlike the last
It was a lot different from the first time. Kathryn had a full-time fashion job in New York City that she commuted to from her parents’ home in North Jersey. She dyed her blond hair red, and she was less loving and affectionate.
I tried to ignore the image of her with someone else, and I tried even harder to make our new relationship like our old one. I tried, but I didn’t do so well.
Our evenings together mainly consisted of eating takeout and her falling asleep on the couch as we watched reruns of “Project Runway.” Light from the television filled the room and flickered on us like a fire but gave no warmth. The space between us on the couch spoke more about our relationship than we did to each other.
After two months, we were eating dinner one evening when I said: “What are we going to do when I deploy?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, quietly.
“Do you still want to date while I’m gone?”
She looked down at her plate. “Not really.”
“So then what are we doing?”
Quietly, she said, “I don’t know.”
She did know. We both knew. She just didn’t want to say she didn’t want to wait for me again. I understood. She was 22, beautiful, and shouldn’t be wasting her life waiting for me. We broke up, but this time she broke up with me.
She moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She posted pictures on Facebook of herself at parties and bars, hanging out with guys I didn’t know. I deleted her from my friends list.
A week later, at my monthly National Guard drill, I stood in first formation as the sun rose. The first sergeant told us our deployment was pushed back a few months, and we wouldn’t be leaving until July. All of a sudden I had eight months to sit and wait and be alone.
I went on dates, but it never went well. When the future came up, things went downhill.
“We’re still sending people over there?” they would ask.
“Yes. We’re trying to build a stable government in Afghanistan. It’s taking a long time to do that, and deployments are on a rotational basis. My unit leaves in July.”
No one wanted a relationship under those circumstances, and I wasn’t one for flings. After being turned down so many times, I stopped trying.
I didn’t take the conversation beyond small talk with the cute barista. I didn’t talk to the girl on the train who was reading my favorite book. I didn’t do much of anything. I spent my nights at home clicking through links on reddit.com. The weeks and months passed.
A month before I left, I sent Kathryn an email to see if she wanted to get together for coffee or dinner. I hadn’t seen or talked to her since we broke up seven months earlier. After not getting a response for a couple of days, I sent another email asking if she got the first one.
The next day she wrote: “Yes, I got your emails, but I honestly don’t have anything to say. I don’t really see a reason to meet up or talk. I’m sorry. I’ll always wish you the best of luck, though.”
I went to New York City and walked around, hoping to run into her.
There’s a place for each of us
The time came for me to leave.
When I got to mobilization training, I figured something out. I realized everyone belongs somewhere. Beautiful young girls who love fashion belong in New York City, at parties and bars, having fun and meeting boys. Headstrong young men who become soldiers belong on the other side of the planet, at war, shooting and being shot at. We were both where we belonged.
Over here in Afghanistan I’m doing one of the hardest things a person can do, and I might not make it home alive. I don’t know if I’m fighting for freedom, or democracy, or against terrorism. All I know is, I need to get Kathryn back into my life.
But I also know I won’t, and that’s just the way it is.