There is a certain point in your 20s when you become an adult, if you haven’t done so already. Not turning 21, not graduating from school. Some event–an arrest, a disaster, a revelation, getting fired, getting humbled, getting an abortion, or some other legitimate voyage out of your well-traveled comfort zone. Nobody actually told me that when I started my 20s, and I didn’t know it was coming until years after it had passed and left a scar I trace with my memory every day. I thought the world would always be mine, along with everyone I loved in it. I was wrong.
In short: my ex-boyfriend was killed in the war. I don’t know how else to put it, and I’ve tried different ways of phrasing it to make it sound less blunt, but it’s difficult. He was my first love and first true despair, he was the best person I knew and, for very a brief period of time, the worst. I toyed with his heart; I drove him crazy. He was the most significant figure in my life, the most pivotal. He was handsome, Tom Cruise-short, and always tan. In high school, he won Best Smile, but it was never a contest. His football coach talked about him with superlatives usually reserved for the pros. He was lazy and devastatingly smart; he loved Coke and plain white t-shirts. He was the first boy to see something electric in me, an electricity he desired.
We dated and broke up, reconnected and flirted and separated. Our relationship was composed of letters, chance IMs, long-distance phone calls (paid for with actual phone cards), breaks from school when I’d go over to his house and watch movies in his basement and, depending on the status of our relationship at the moment, graze knees. It was all incredibly chaste and suggestive, the way relationships at that age in a very Christian town can be. When he died, we hadn’t spoken in weeks, hadn’t formally dated in years. But I was broken in two.
His name was Luke, and until my junior year in high school, I had never really known him. He was a year older than I was; we’d gone to the same middle school, where he’d been popular in the way only confident, charismatic boys can be.
I was taking chemistry from one of the most committed misogynists in the school district–a brilliant teacher with a lecherous streak, who routinely remarked how pleasant it was to have cheerleaders (just me) in his class on game days (the days I wore short polyester skirts). The first day of class, I’d tried to arrange myself in a way so as to obtain a low-stress lab partner: someone who’d let me dominate everything and get us an A, the way I was used to handling group work. Everything was set, but then Luke, Mr. High School, walked into class five minutes late and took the only open desk right beside me. Mr. Misogyny put us together. I was terrified.
Luke was dating this hot–gorgeous–sophomore. She had long, pendulous hair and was good at volleyball, the way those type of girls are. Over the course of the year, I learned that he was smart, even though he spent most of his days dozing through the first fifteen minutes of class, placing his gum on his hat for safekeeping. We argued, we almost-flirted, we got As. When we did computer modeling, I drew a picture of him with some rudimentary painting program, featuring the only shirt of his that wasn’t white. He took it home and showed it to his mother, who folded it away for safekeeping until showing it to me nearly a decade later.
In my hometown, we take senior pictures, and we do them up right. We’re talking portfolios with six to ten shots, with at least one posed with your favorite symbol of recreation: a football, a cheerleading uniform, your gun, your truck, your baby. You ordered hundreds of wallet-size prints and inscribed them personally; it was like having business cards, only more important. Luke was a “rep” for one of the local photographers, which is just another way of saying that he was good-looking and popular, and his pictures were simple and excellent, the way pictures of people who need no adornment always are.
In the one he gave me, he’s wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and sitting on a stoop; his inscription was witty and brief and the best thing I’d received all year. He graduated and went off to the Virginia Military Institute, possibly the most surprising thing anyone from Northern Idaho has ever done. I went to France for the summer (possibly the second most surprising thing anyone from Northern Idaho has ever done) and settled in for senior year. It was just a friendship, and then it was over.
Until winter, when it wasn’t. The freshman year at VMI, endearingly dubbed the “Rat Year,” is a mix of physical and psychological hazing, characterized by very little access to worldly pleasures and a lot of elbow-crawling through the mud. There was, however, even in 1999, email access, which led to VERY DEEP exchanges via dial-up modem. He told me how his mentor would occasionally let him sit in his room and listen to music, usually verboten for first-years, and how he’d found himself growing addicted to Fiona Apple’s Tidal. This I could get behind.
A long-distance phone conversation or two, a vacation from school, a late night considering whether or not we’d make out. It was all very stressful and delicious. He loved the way I made chocolate chip cookies, the fights we’d have over feminism, my general willfulness and my committed notion that I’d be able to hold a conversation with his father, a highly learned man who verbally decimated any girls that Luke and his brothers brought home. It’s not that his father was mean, exactly; it was that he had exacting standards, which is part of the reason Luke was the person he was.
After plenty of dithering, he convinced me to come over and meet the family. I wore a pair of khaki shorts and a light blue V-neck tank top, both from the Gap, because it was 1999 and that was how you looked nice. I got pushed in the pool and roundly teased and treated to an inquisition, which is another way of saying that I won the family over. I still found it hard to believe all of this was happening to me: I was a cheerleader without a boyfriend or a prom date, a status one of my male friends attributed to my status as a “ball buster,” which is Idaho shorthand for “a girl who talks in class.” Suddenly, the world was rotating my way.
There were perfect days in July. He had two brothers and a kid sister, a discerning father and an indulgent mother. There were friends spiraling out to all corners of the back patio, endless supplies of burgers and chips (never beer; Luke’s family was not that kind of family). All the boys played football and had the physique unique to 17-year-old boys: lean, muscular, and completely effortless. When the sun went down we’d pile in the back of a truck and go to the video store, something ridiculous like Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” playing loud enough for everyone to hear, and pick out something horrible. After the movie, Luke would walk me to out to my car for a long goodbye, charged with the electricity of waiting all night for him to touch me. Sleep (very little); Work (horrible); Repeat.
Was he my boyfriend? Maybe. Yes. But then he went to boot camp in Oklahoma while I spent the summer working at the bagel shop. I wrote to him every day, and he replied the way a hero in a Nicholas Sparks novel would: every day, on small squares of lined paper, in a skinny, distinctive scrawl. The way he missed me was encoded in his descriptions of the calls of the drill sergeants, the hunger of the early morning. My mom watched the envelopes arrive with a mixture of bemusement and concern.
Our relationship fell apart, then reconstructed itself. In 2013, things might have been different. In 1999, we had IM and a once-weekly phone call. Eighteen-year-olds love too much to be contained in so little. By Christmas, we were officially split, but still spent every day we were both in town together. And so every break went for the next four years: I’d make fun of his new girlfriends, I’d force him to see better movies, I’d tease him with a confidence I lacked elsewhere. Sometimes there was a spark that we cultivated, other times one or the other us blew it out. But no one else’s opinion mattered more.
Always, we’d write. At this point he was spending the bulk of his breaks in one rigorous training program or another. Scuba, Ranger, Airborne–I don’t know the official names; all I know is how he’d laminate my letters and take them into the field. It gave me a sense of significance that few other things could, then or since. When I was studying abroad in France, he spent his spring break in Bermuda, drinking hard and breaking rules like military guys on vacation do. One night he got separated from the rest of his group, hopped some walls, shimmied up a balcony, made his way back into the hotel without a key, and wrote me a letter in Red Sharpie on the back pages of Gideon’s Bible: “I do love you, Annie. I guess I always will.”
He folded the letter and sealed the envelope so he wouldn’t wake up in the morning and think twice. It was the first and the last time he said it.
Luke graduated from VMI and was stationed in the North Korean DMZ. So far, so (relatively) good. Before leaving Stateside, he sent me a thick, mysterious parcel. I was excited at first, but then, immediately terrified: it was five years’ worth of my letters, at least 200 in total, except for a few that had disintegrated in his pocket and one I’d written in anger. They were mine for safekeeping; they were mine to reread, to marvel and despair at. I had no way of tethering my heart to his own.
Then he was in Iraq, growing a mustache because that’s what you did to look less Western, sending back pictures of himself standing in front of the crumbling, whitewashed, ornate backdrop of a regime in decline.
People still understand what it meant to be in Fallujah in the fall of 2004. That’s where Luke was when he was killed by a stray IED, volunteering to take another soldier’s place on a security round. His brother sent an email in the early morning hours.
I was working as a nanny at the time; even if I hadn’t been in shock, I couldn’t have called in sick. I went to work and clung to that baby, weeping through his naps, tears streaming down my face as I pushed him around the block over and over again. That afternoon, I managed to tell the parents I worked for that I needed to go home to Idaho. My ex-boyfriend–my best friend–had been killed in Iraq, I told them. It was the first time I’d felt the shock of the words in my mouth.
What followed was a week of sleeplessness and alcohol and sitting in Luke’s house, surrounded by memories, barely holding my body together. His sister had a one-year-old son, and his face looked so much like Luke’s I wanted to stare at him forever, or never again. The only thing that seemed to help was collecting passages from our letters, photos, snippets of lyrics from CD liner notes, and compiling them in a notebook to give to his parents, evidence of the soft heart of their hard-edged boy. I left out the most embarrassing parts, left in the most revealing ones–the parts where he talked with plain reverence about his father, the way he described the clean lines of his spartan life at VMI, the closest he got to purple prose in his appreciation for Pearl Jam’s Ten.
There was a burial at Arlington Cemetery in the rain; I still felt so absent from my body that I couldn’t hold two thoughts in my head at once. On the cross-country flight back I had a full row to myself, and I lay prone and stared straight ahead, unable to sleep, addicted to my own grief.
The thick sorrow would lift over the next few months, but I started dreaming–deep, involved dreams–almost always featuring his entire family, Luke always alive, but leaving soon. I’d wake up crying, which, if you’ve never experienced it, is the strangest of sensations, the physical crossover from the subconscious to the conscious. Nearly ten years later, I still have these dreams, waking up exhausted and low, not because of some new realization that he’s gone, but because in the dream, he was not.
I’m still friends with his family, and have watched as they’ve had more kids, all of whom look like Luke, and named them, in various fashions, after him. I’ve seen myself grow older than his forever 24 years, and wonder what he’d tease me about now, what his children would look like, whether his handwriting would be the same and whether he could still pull a “gainer” on his parents’ diving board, how much he’d hate Facebook and the fights we’d have over politics and the war, how his face would age but his smile would not. Apart from my parents, I have so little left for me in my hometown: he was always the reason for the return. Without him, I sleep too much.
I realize that I am one of thousands who have been forced to bear this type of loss. Which is part of what makes my story feel singular, even when it is not. But it’s still difficult to explain: at one point in the weeks after Luke’s death, someone, thinking I was out of earshot, asked a friend why I was so upset–it’s not like I was his girlfriend.
Truth. It was more.
Luke intermittently loved and mostly hated poetry. I’d send him poem after poem, hoping to land on one he’d like. There was Archilochos, from the 7th century B.C., and a bit of Frost, but there was also a fragment of Longfellow–one he never admitted to loving, but which I found well-creased and battered in the packet of letters he sent me.
I don’t know how to end this story, because it’s a story that doesn’t end. But this is as good of a placeholder as any in a life that lives on vividly, inextricable from my own.
There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
And the words of that fatal song
Come over me like a chill:
‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’