WAR, WAR, WAR, WAR, WAR.
I’m so sick of hearing about the war.
It’s everywhere and you’re not.
It’s everywhere that you’re not.
Two years into this loss, and the garage, which used to be my zen place, is now just another place. Everyone thinks asking about you might make it better because it shows concern. As if I want to talk about it. Two years waiting and I no longer want to talk about it. “How’s Tuvi, Jake?” they say. “I haven’t heard from him,” is my refrain, while I keep my head above an engine and pray that some part of the fuel cell will spontaneously combust in my face so I don’t have to answer anymore. So I don’t have to think about you anymore, as if you were dead already, just a ghost. As if I can put you in a trunk with my parents’ history and never look at it again. But you can’t kill a memory like you can kill the enemy.
I try anyway to kill the memory of you. I make the plans. I attempt premeditation. All this time waiting has made me a silent murderer. Is it murder when it’s in war? If the enemy doesn’t do it, you can count on me.
Because they won’t tell me. Because they don’t know. Because you somehow can’t find your way home. You’re out past five solar systems and nobody knows anything. Not the media that pretends they’ve exposed the war, not the military that brags like they’re winning it. Maybe not even you, Tuvi. Maybe you don’t know where you are either. Maybe to you I’m a ghost as well, haunting all of the quiet places in your mind.
Absence is still grieving. I have nothing to throw my voice against. I go home and the walls of our apartment absorb futility as much as anger. They take the tears and don’t give them back. It’s not like arguing with you, there is no makeup sex. There is no mess. I’ve become a clinician of emotion, a recipient of symptoms. Check for signs of life. The walls and the floor and our bed hold all the memories and beat them back at me like the echo of a heart, a reminder of where you still occupy. An invasion force of your heart in mine, razing my surrendered territory.
Maybe I should’ve fought harder. Maybe I should’ve put up barricades and forced you to lay siege.
If I’d known at Anna’s barbecue two years ago. A winter grilling and you walked out onto the snow like it couldn’t touch you. Like this wasn’t the worst cold that you’d ever felt. I noticed your boots first because they used to be white. You had that easy, unconscious swagger, parting the drifts that blew around your legs. “This is my cousin Tuvi, he’s just come back from a tour.” And me in my half–drunk ignorance: “A tour of what?” A tour of the islands? A world tour? A tourist? Your grin was patronizing but also a little relieved. Like you’d finally found someone who saw something else in you, before the other things.
If I’d known.
I babbled something about taking apart bikes, tricking out cars. The race I was prepping for at the end of the month. (“Yeah, we ride in any weather.”) Ended by apologizing and claiming I didn’t usually talk this much. “I can tell,” you said. The only people who run on like that are the ones who keep all their shit stored up.
You let me trace the scar on your skull, flowing like a tributary from behind your ear to the back of your head, to meet up with another pale line. The military cut bristled beneath my fingertips but you were motionless. “There’s no story to tell,” you said. But don’t all scars come with stories? This wasn’t playtime, though. This wasn’t a gathering of mats in the library before recess. The kids’ swings creaked in the cold and beneath our weight, and our clothes had taken on the scent of wood smoke and ice. The party had moved inside and the gold light and faded voices could have been flickers from an aged film, echoes from a movie soundtrack. Neither of us cared to retreat into the warmth.
Inevitably I looked up at the stars. You kept pulling at your beer, two fingers around the neck, and looked instead at the shadows at our feet. You kicked the snow until ashen grass showed beneath, then buried the ground all over again.
My curiosity, but not about the stars: “I’ve never been up there.”
Another swig of the beer. “There’s nothing up there.”
“There’s a war out there.” Rebellious company colonies that we called terrorists. “You were up there. Are you going back?”
It didn’t have to matter then. This was only supposed to be one time.
I love a man in uniform used to be a punch line.
It was only supposed to be one time, seeing you, but the next day I let you ride one of my bikes, a vintage that you said you had experience with, yet you brought it down at the side of the road. Gravel flew like tiny meteorites. You laughed. I wanted to hit you for the scratches and the dents, for all the ways you thought my anger was funny. “I didn’t do it on purpose.” Sure. Anyone who liked to crash probably always did it on purpose.
It didn’t occur to me until later that you’d lied about the experience. That you just wanted an excuse to do something I loved. That you dived in so readily and risked your limbs for an extra day together. “I’m not bad with machinery,” you said. “Just not used to roads.” We walked back to the garage, five miles pushing the bikes on snow–dusted road, with rockets from the base launching in the distance, returning your brothers and sisters to the stars. The contrails carved white across the blue sky, making wedgewood out of the Earth’s canopy.
It was a clear day and maybe that had been your plan all along. This way we talked instead of the wind rushing between us. You might’ve even faked a limp to ease my irritation. Tough guy. Bright smile. I talked. You just listened, gathering my stories of childhood spills and sun–drenched road trips to your chest like they would keep you warm. That was exactly what you were doing, why you didn’t tell me any of your own stories. Your stories, you said later, would only leave behind the cold.
Anna wore a smile the following weekend, like people do when they’re in on a secret. I found it infuriating. We said it was casual. We shot pool and went for drives. The snow on the fields made you quiet and I didn’t mind. You know you get along with someone when silence isn’t a barrier. You know you belong with someone when breaking it opens a door.
Because you didn’t tell me stories, I made up my own. Confirm or deny. The only rule was you weren’t allowed to lie. It was my version of invading a foreign space, of setting up convoys and creating a supply line. We tried to outflank each other but I don’t think you tried very hard. Soldiering was all you knew. Your parents had both worked at the base. They’d shipped out early in the war and you were raised by Anna’s father, your uncle. You heard about their deaths through the report of the battle. Everyone remembers the battle out by the belt. Confirmation came later, in uniforms. Some things they still do the old–fashioned way.
I changed the direction of my march when your eyes started to drift to open spaces. This was over days, picking up the conversation before and after sleep, between shared drinks and naked bodies and sheets. The truth wasn’t everything, I said. Let’s say we grew up together. Let’s say I pelted snowballs at you and we ruined each other’s forts. Let’s say you broke my arm pushing me from a tree and felt sorry after.
Let’s say I followed you to space.
Pretending didn’t go that far. You skirted my attempts to advance.
It was stupid anyway.
So I took it back even if it was too late.
That night I knew I didn’t want you to go.
But it was too late.
Pretty soon you realized my temper was a mask. “You put all of your aggression into these machines, but it can’t fuel you the same way.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
I wanted to rewind to the moment when I could make the decision to fortify these walls. Instead I lowered the damn bridge and beckoned you across.
It felt like a homecoming, not an invasion. That was the problem. And we had years to catch up on.
Years of when you were somewhere else, growing up, losing your parents, going off to war. And I was just here.
We spent every day together for two weeks. If only I’d forced the siege.
“Don’t write to me,” you said. Do you ever think about taking that back?
“I’ll write to you. I just won’t send it.” Civilian comms didn’t go that deep into the war anyway. The soldier you were didn’t sit on base or on a ship somewhere waiting for the mail to light in. I watched your eyes glint in the morning sun and asked you if you’d miss it. The sun. Earth sky. Snow on the tips of your boots. I was asking something else and your gaze caught mine in the mirror.
Tough guy. Bright smile. “Of course I will.”
Your uniform was black like space. I planted a kiss to the back of your shoulder and the imprint only remained for a couple seconds. Black absorbed light. It also hid blood. But it couldn’t mask your heartbeat, I still felt that against my palm.
I want to joke at you, I wrote. The tenth letter and two months into your absence. I want to start this off like I started off the first one, ignoring the facts. We can be troublesome lawyers too crooked to take into consideration something as variable as the truth. You are not out there in deep space, I am not back on this planet waiting. I’ve never waited for anyone in my life. Nobody’s ever waited for me. Remember when I told you about riding my first bike over the neighbor’s yard and crashing into the fence? Of course it was on purpose. Of course my parents yelled. Of course a few more stunts like that and they kicked me out of the trailer. They didn’t wait for me to come back before they left. I keep it all inside because there’s nowhere to put it.
In one night, though, you heard my crash stories. I can blame you.
When you come back I want you to tell me everything.
I want to understand if this is real, or are you just good at saying the right things and listening the right way? I won’t believe Anna. Your cousin isn’t allowed to vouch for you. This isn’t a swearing in of eyewitnesses or a pledge to a club. I won’t believe the hearsay. I want you to look me in the eyes. I want you to take all of my letters. You don’t have to read them, just know that I wrote them for you.
We still call them letters because they’re made up of the minimal components that create language and meaning. They’re not handwritten anymore, I don’t have to get them stamped. Letters on a screen. Letters made of light. Letters going only as far as the transparent display over my eyes.
It’s not enough just to have your feet back on Earth. You don’t get off that easily. Let’s just assume you’ll live and you owe me something, even if we said we didn’t owe each other anything. We were just ignoring the facts then too.
Apparently I have it in me to make demands. Maybe it wouldn’t be this way if you just worked in another town.
But I have to know.
You might die and I have to know.
Everything you do makes my life immediate.
Six months later you showed up at the garage. I was beneath a car fiddling with the repulsor panel settings. You grabbed my ankles and yanked me out and I kicked you in the shins before I saw you. We made a scene. Crashed into one of the bikes. Fell over parts. I might’ve been trying to punch you. My boss said to take it elsewhere, but there was a smile on her face.
So you did. You took me elsewhere.
In bed you told me about all the parts of you that weren’t human anymore. Starting with your fingers, which had been blown off three years ago, and now they’re reset with mods that can arm guns and grenades with just a caress. I could’ve told you that, for the way they pass along my skin, detonating me.
Your eyes, at least your left one, that can see in the night or the black of space, can read radiation levels and zoom in on targets from ten thousand meters away. But to me they’re green with flecks of gold, like something people used to mine, something rare and valuable that catches the light. I saw an old movie once where the cowboys bit down on coins to test their authenticity. If I set my teeth in you I would know that you are genuine.
The line of your spine doesn’t show a scar, even though that was replaced, regrown, made new so you could walk. Seven years ago you’d been ripped apart, torn out like a fish, and they said you’d never walk again. Tough guy. I smiled because I didn’t want to think about it. You smiled because you didn’t want to say it.
This was everything. These were your stories.
The months of convalescence, physiotherapy, reprogramming, refusal. Stubbornness. Let me ask just one question, and it isn’t a game, this isn’t pretend.
Why did you go back?
Don’t they have robots for this now? Isn’t this a machine war?
But it’s humans that wage war.
War is a human problem.
And the rebels have been taking our robots, reprogramming them, and sending them back. Trojan warfare.
This was more than the news said. More than the military let out.
Human beings started this war, human beings have to end it.
I touched your fingertips. Now I knew why they were so smooth. I have another question, I’m sorry.
Every time you go back to the war, they steal another part of you.
How much of you returns home? Not because these scars bother me. Not because I can almost feel the triggers when we lay our palms together.
“I don’t really come back,” you said. “They don’t fix me for that reason.”
You weren’t talking about your body.
These were your stories and they left me cold.
After breakfast I gave you the letters. I wanted to leave while you read them but you gripped my hand and made me stay. Two of us on the bed with the scent of chai tea and waffle syrup, in an apartment small enough to house voices long after they died.
Thirty letters and you read every one, the light from the screen making your skin glow.
As if you weren’t real.
But your thumb moved over my fingers like you didn’t even know you were doing it. Moving at the same speed your eyes did as they gathered up the words. Your thumb moved over my fingers like I was a trigger.
I had the quiet and the worry, as you read.
I had my heartbeat in my ears.
Who needs romance? Reality is better.
At least in moments. At least in imprints before they fade away.
It’s easier to write when I know you won’t read it. I can be honest. More honest. I can go through all the stages of things and be imprecise about it. Things. I can say I miss you and it doesn’t feel like I’m giving something away into a void. The void. Even if this is going into a void. You’re not here and it’s a void. You’re the one in space, in a void. Write a word enough times and it begins to look funny. It becomes nothing. If I write it enough times maybe it won’t exist anymore. Void.
I only have mundane things to say, but maybe that’s what you want to know. About the orange cat that came by the garage and everyone wanted to keep it. About how it just took our milk then went away, never returned. I raced last weekend and came in second. I think my repulsor alignment was a little off. I’ll fix it for next week. I mixed a new paint and maybe I’ll add a flag to the bike. How can any of this interest you?
The truth is I’m just thinking of you.
The truth is I’m angry that I’ve become one of those. I never expected you, and now look.
I wonder if writing these letters makes it worse. With all my focus on the words, maybe you’re more than you really are. Or maybe I made you up entirely.
I spend months missing you. It’s a currency that never dries up and I get slapped with interest. Maybe at the end of this I’ll be bankrupt. Maybe when you come home and decide you don’t care, I’ll go into foreclosure.
This is what your absence does to me. Suddenly I doubt everything. Should I wear this shirt to the bar? Do I want to talk to anyone else? I don’t feel like riding this afternoon. There’s no more solace in speed.
I go to sleep thinking of how long it would take for word to come back that you’re dead. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all.
Why can’t you at least try to write?
What’s so important about this war?
Why do you care when you can stay here on Earth (with me)?
I can hear you already: Tell a different story, Jake.
Tell me one about going cross country. Tell me all about getting lost in the trees. Give me your injuries one by one. The first crash and the last.
Especially the last because that one is you.
One night I met a soldier in the snow. He wore white boots and didn’t seem to feel the cold.
Tell me the best thing about the seasons changing. How the trees light up like fire and warm the cool blues of the sky. Nothing is as beautiful as that. Death can be beautiful.
No, let’s not take it there.
It’s not death, it’s transition.
It doesn’t matter how many parts of you aren’t homegrown from birth. Don’t you see what I do for a living?
Whatever happens, I can fix you.
Yeah, I believe that shit too.
I never met anything engineered that I couldn’t understand. Taking things apart and putting them back together. That’s what I do.
Just come back.
I miss you.
On the last letter: Love, Jake.
And your fingers squeezed the blood from my hand.
We had two weeks the first time we met. The second time around, after six months of absence, we had another two and you said you weren’t going back.
I thought you were joking and it was cruel. But the nervousness told me this wasn’t a joke. You made the decision to stay. I didn’t ask if it was for me. Vanity is the other side of love.
There, I said it. Doesn’t matter that it’s in my head. It feels loud.
You were nervous because you didn’t know how to live in this world. I thought back to those first two weeks. Mostly we were alone. Even at the barbecue we were alone.
The only time we were never alone was with each other.
The secret to being in a room full of people but not noticing a thing is you.
At first we lived.
You moved in with your meager belongings.
Anna threw a homecoming and you didn’t leave my side.
I saw how the laughter was a strain. I saw how you were already regretting it.
“No, no, of course not.”
That was the first time you ever lied to me. I didn’t call you on it because I wanted to believe. I knew it could work. It would just take time. The things beneath your skin now could be used for other things.
Vague things. A vague future but at least it’s a future and you’re here. Just give it time.
We all have our mantras.
I fell into the trap. The door in the floor opened up and I dropped in. It had your name on it, that was the problem. You didn’t want to hear it but I would’ve followed you into space.
Instead I followed you into the hole, into the dark.
Same thing, maybe.
In the light that came through the window, sunlight or moonlight, I traced the curve of your spine and marveled at the technology that gave you to me.
Vanity is the other side of love. Of course it was all for me.
The hands that used to set off grenades and fire weapons now handled drinks at the bar. We met at odd hours but they worked for us. Other people didn’t work for you though. Too many people. Every time the vid cycled the news, you switched it to sports.
At first you tried. You came to my races. You read books while I worked on my bike, music threading between us on the driveway. You learned to cook stir fry, made me a birthday card from scratch like we were in fifth grade. Fixed the misaligned window so the rain didn’t leak in.
But the other window cracked.
Little things frustrated you.
Then you didn’t want to get out of bed.
Then you just kept saying, Tell me another story.
I ran out of stories.
We tried running away for your birthday, took a road trip to the mountains but the silences stretched. They became barriers. You didn’t want to celebrate. You gripped my hand until I no longer had feeling in my fingers.
Please talk to me.
Don’t tell me a story, just talk to me.
Or write it down if you can’t say it out loud.
It was winter again and I felt futile. The frightening part was how much you loved me without saying a word. You turned your body to the shrapnel in order to protect me. You lay down on top of me when the tanks rolled over. You gave me your last tube of oxygen and with my last breath I yelled at you, I said, I just want you to live.
Please don’t die.
Just come back.
I miss you.
I had a dream the night before you told me. We were climbing a sloped road and it was winter. Wolves paced behind us but they just followed our tracks. At the top of the hill lay bodies in black open bags. We walked right by them and entered a bar; the Olympics were on TV and everyone looked at us with vague suspicion. I tried to order nachos and eventually you had to flag down the waitress and repeat it three times. For some reason we were lodged into a table with three other men, all older, who stared at us with the blank looks of the lobotomized. They were locals and we weren’t.
We ate our nachos and left the bar. The wolves were gone. More bodies had collected on the hill. At the bottom of the hill, at the side of the road, a child was digging ditches. I asked you if you recognized any of the dead and you said no.
The dead lined up outside our door.
They wouldn’t let us in.
We couldn’t go home.
So I started to zip up the body bags and you churned the dirt and snow together with a shovel until it looked like cake mix.
The world was quiet and the air didn’t bite. In any other dream it might have been peaceful.
The next morning you told me you were going back to space.
I yelled at you for two hours.
The things we say when we’re trying not to hurt.
You have a death wish.
You’re an adrenalin junkie.
You just want to kill people.
It hasn’t even been a year, you can’t give it a year?
You stood there with your hands open like you wanted to take all of my words, like you were inviting them.
So I threw them at you like knives.
And you bled. The red ran down your body and pooled at your feet, stained the floors, threw in spatter behind your head to be analyzed later by an evidence unit.
How many lives do you think you have?
Why don’t you go to therapy?
Who’s the guilty one here?
“I’m not built for anything else.” While you began to pack.
I’m not built for anything else either.
I’ve modified myself for you. I had my organs ripped out and replaced, programmed to your genetic code. I was brought down by the side of the road. I can’t scour out the scratches, can’t bang out the dents. I’m running on my last fuel cell and you’re just running.
“Better to get out now.”
“Better to only waste a year on me.”
So now it’s for my own good. Unilateral decisions for my own good.
It got down to begging. I’ve become one of those. Because in the dream I was zipping up body bags and you’re going back to war. You’re going too far and I don’t want to write any more letters.
I don’t want your cousin to call me in the middle of the night.
The things we say when we’re trying not to hurt.
I love you and I don’t want you to leave.
I don’t think I said that first part.
I won’t wait for you.
And you walked on out.
Do you ever want to take it back? That last word?
I lied too, you know.
I’m still waiting.
Two years waiting and Anna says no news is good news. We’ve been whittled to pat assurances.
You’ve been gone for longer than we were together. In the scale of that I wonder some days why I’m holding on.
Between the anger and the missing is some truth I have yet to grasp.
I won’t call it love.
Let’s say you show up at the garage again and yank me out from beneath a car.
Let’s say we make a scene and it’s like fighting but it’s not.
Let’s say neither of us apologize because we’re just so happy you’re alive.
Let’s say it lasts.
Let’s say you aren’t dead already, or missing, and the war will end.
Let’s say it ends and you come home for good. There are no more fronts to fight, no more rebels to put down.
Let’s run through this one more time. I’ll give you five scenarios, the only rule is you can’t lie.
The only rule is you can’t die.
Confirm or deny.
Let me tell you a story about a soldier I met in the snow.
Let me show you all the parts of him that make up the whole of me.
I’m sick of feeling this way.
You’re a bastard.
The truth is life happens anyway. I have conversations with it too and I’m yelling at it just as much. You’re not allowed to carry on. The air isn’t allowed to move into my lungs. The world isn’t allowed to spin. I’m not allowed to win more races. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t want to drink to victory. I can’t see Anna anymore. Your niece and nephew miss you. Your uncle still brings his car by. Everyone keeps asking about you.
It’s worse when they stop asking.
It’s worse when the news says the war is over and our boys and girls are coming home.
Everyone is lying.
If there’s a way for you to stay in deep space, you will.
If I’d only known that first night how far the cold ran.
But who am I kidding?
The news shows the footage of the ships blinking in, like stars. Spontaneously birthed.
One, two, five, nine, fifteen.
Popping in like God is sticking pins into the night sky.
Almost three years you’ve been gone.
I can’t do the math.
The theory of relativity states that the further out you are, the harder it is to forget you.
Do you know you left one of your T–shirts in my drawer? Actually two.
I’m sorry but you don’t get them back.
When she told me you were at the VA hospital I nearly crashed trying to get to you.
The theory of relativity states that the second you’re in my orbit again, I forget the past three years.
Time contracts right back to that moment. When you left me. Do you want to take it back?
My footsteps on the hospital floors.
Take it back, take it back, take it back.
I’ll wait for you.
I’m not angry anymore.
I was selfish and scared.
I’m not brave.
I touched your spine and the scars on your skull. I was afraid with all the lives you’d lived up, there wouldn’t be one left for me.
They put you to lie on a flat bed.
They’re growing your insides.
They’ve printed out your skin.
They’re giving you a new eye.
Your body seems transparent in the light of so many lasers and the glue they use to hold you together.
I imagine you turning to look at me. You see me through the doors.
You see right through me.
Here to give me a new paint job, Jake?
Let me get my hands into you. Let me meld this bone to that, drive this rivet in, attach an extra plating for heat resistance. Heart resistance. I can make you run again. I’ve designed you something new. You’ll be stronger, faster, and happier. I’ll scour out all the things you’ve seen, I’ll burn the bad dreams until they’re winter blue.
Just let me touch you.
I don’t care if you’re cold.
I don’t care where you’ve been.
This is what I’m good at.
I’m good with you.
They say not to expect the same you.
I’m not the same, so we’re even.
Distance and time flayed us both alive.
I promise you soba noodles done just the way you like. A little spicy, served with chopsticks. Open your eyes. It’s been a long sleep. You won’t remember, maybe, but that won’t stop my dreams.
We don’t have to leave the covers when it’s a snowy Sunday morning. Later in the afternoon I’ll pack your coat with ice. We’ll chase each other down the block and cheat the rules. I’ll teach you how to ride in bad weather and you’ll dent every piece of machinery I own. The fluid in me can manufacture you. Let’s pretend we grew up together. Let’s be born anew. Say the scientific names of the stars because romance isn’t as sweet as reality. Give me an idea of what it’s like to lose gravity. I’ll be the thing you fall back to.
Everyone is waiting.
We’ve got more places to go. I’ve mapped the route. We’ll pass through every season and stop at the beach and all the seas. You’ll get salt in your eyes and I’ll allow myself to cry. We’ll have a picture perfect ending that’s all about horizons. There are more colors in a sunrise than there are stars in the sky. Let me show you.
Then we’ll awaken and figure this out.
You don’t have to know right now.
There’s no more war to run back to. Just this one inside of you.
Here, that’s my fingertip.
I know you can feel that. I see you move.
Even if you return to space, this time I’ll follow you.
Here, tell me a story. Tell me there will be no more killing. Tell me there will be no more enemies.
Tell me a story and begin it with I love you.