I hadn’t been in my home for over two years. In the old house people stood shoulder to shoulder, laughing, drinking. The house was decorated for the holidays; my mother’s touch was in every nook and cranny. Yet I felt far away from the home of my youth, separated from everyone, even loved ones, by a thin, gauzy veil.
And I felt trapped. My face was suffused with heat, kindled not by the warm room but growing panic. I felt the rooms closing in on me and a sudden urge to flee.
“Hey, buddy, how ’bout a beer?”
Startled, I looked up to see my old high school buddies—Jack, Teddy, Wes, Woody. I broke into a wide grin and rose to clasp hands and receive hearty hugs.
“Let’s get out of here,” Woody said, and jerked his head in the direction of the back door.
We escaped the party and the incessant carols and moved to the backyard, stepping into the blast of cold air. I gulped it down, welcoming the bracing chill after the stifling crowd. I could feel the sweat chilling my brow and felt my breathing ease. In the distance the trees lurked ominously and I barely made out Jeremy Creek racing silently with the tide. Together we collected wood, gathered branches and lit a bonfire. We stood around it, watching the flames flicker in the night, shooting the breeze as we always had while chugging down beer after beer. My headache began to ease with the alcohol and the fresh air. And I felt more comfortable now in the shadows.
But in time, despite the light of the fire, I felt the inner darkness creep over me again, advancing with the pounding of my heart. I again felt isolated, the odd man out. I didn’t belong in this party of revelers. Step by step I moved back several paces from the fire into the shadows. From a distance I drank beer and let my gaze scan the faces of men who were at one time my best friends, men I’d shared so much of my life with. They rocked on their heels, laughing and sharing memories of our antics in high school. We’d done everything together back then. It seemed more than a lifetime ago. Even though we went to different colleges, we’d hung out at home during the holidays and summers, bound by a brotherhood that had begun in diapers. But after college graduation only I had joined the service. Only I went to war, while they continued their lives in South Carolina. Not that one choice was better than the other. Just different. My gaze traveled from face to face and I wondered if their experiences on their individual paths made them, too, think from time to time that they were different. Hadn’t we all changed from the carefree youths we once were?
I took a long sip of my beer, downing it to the dregs. Lowering my hand, I stared at the empty bottle and realized that no amount of beer would change that I was now different from these boys. I tasted bitterness in my throat and threw the empty bottle far into the darkness. It landed with the satisfying sound of glass shattering.
Who was I kidding? I was an old man compared to my friends. I’d seen things, done things, that they—that no one at home—could understand. The chasm between those who’d witnessed the atrocities of war, who had stared death in the face and survived, and those who had not was as dark and murky as the ocean.
I stepped closer to the fire, feeling its heat. Listening to the laughter of these men who were alive to enjoy this Christmas, I felt alone with my thoughts and my guilt for the men who wouldn’t be returning home to their families this Christmas. As the sparks from the fire swirled up to mingle with the stars in the vast sky, I said a quick prayer to whichever God was listening for the souls of those brothers I’d left behind. And that I’d find the strength and courage to find my way through the black mist I was lost in back home.
Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
—A Christmas Carol
The party was winding down when I made my escape to my room. I closed the door, leaning against it with my head bent and panting like a pugilist who’d made it through twelve rounds. I didn’t turn the lights on. Rather, when I could move, I found my way through the darkness of my childhood room to the bed and fell back against the mattress. It was as lumpy as ever and I was grateful for it. I lay with one leg hanging over the side of the bed and my arm over my eyes, trying to slow my breathing and stop the roller coaster of my emotions. It took all I had to hang on. I couldn’t speak to one more person. Hear not one more thank you. Not one more good-bye.
A short while later an unwelcome knock came on my bedroom door. My muscles tightened, poised for flight. I forced myself to lie still and ignored it, hoping whoever it was would just go away.
No such luck. A young and inquiring voice called from behind the door. “Taylor?”
I didn’t answer.
“You in there?” More insistent this time: “Taylor?”
“Go. Away,” I growled back.
“Mama said you’re to come downstairs and say good-bye to your guests.” Miller sounded reproachful. When I didn’t respond, he said, “So get in trouble. See if I care.”
I couldn’t blame Miller for being annoyed. I heard his footfalls retreat and descend the stairs in angry thumps. I lay on the bed, unmoving, exhausted, praying for sleep that I knew wouldn’t come. I hadn’t slept well for months. I only had a long series of fits and starts clustered around horrific memories and worse nightmares. Why did the doctors think coming home was a tonic? No one here understood what I was going through. At least in the VA hospital I was among guys who were going through the same terrors I was. We didn’t need to talk about it. We read the communal histories in our haunted eyes.
A short while later I heard another soft rap on my door. “Taylor?”
I softly groaned, hoping my mother would just go away.
I heard the door creak open, and a shaft of light from the hall wedged into the room.
“Taylor, are you asleep?”
“Can you come down, just for a minute? Your guests are leaving.”
“Honey, you don’t want to be rude.”
“I have a splitting headache,” I ground out, my frustration and pain audible.
There was a moment’s pause, then a soft, apologetic “Oh. Okay.” I heard the door close with a soft swish of movement.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on willing my bowed-up muscles to relax.
Hours later I still wasn’t sleeping. I was lying in my childhood bed, feeling as lost and alone as any preadolescent. And just as afraid. The walls were closing in on me. I rose up on my elbow and reached over to turn on the bedside lamp.