It did get easier, once I started to imagine things were moving fast, too fast to fathom, too fast to see the stars but only feel them intrinsically on my skin—little pinpricks, little bubbles of air to touch my cheeks or take my breath. Or, you know. The sort of rambling things I was letting myself think, so long as it kept me distracted and living.
The window was damp with me leaning against it, and in that position the teeth-rattling rumble of the ol' greyhound's engines was churning my stomach much the same way a headache had been thrashing behind my eyes for the past month. I rubbed my ragged sleeve into a patch of fogged glass and turned away from the dark outside and looked instead to the darkness within. A few lights pricked the arid gloom—reading lamp, a cell phone or so. It was a heavy sort of stifled, in here, and it smelled like old cloth and travel and musty seats. Someone was coughing.
But cold. Why is every freaking bus always so cold? I hunkered down, tugging my jacket ever closer, and pawed at my nose. My shoulder was stiff, aching like the bone was eroding slowly into jagged shards; I eased my arm into a better position and bit my lip until I was tasting blood again. Wasn't sure if it was time for another pill. I didn't want to take it, anyhow.
Too fast, right? The lurid orange flicker of a highway light guttered over us in window-square patches, row by row. It passed over me and I closed my eyes, rubbing the toes of my boots together. Rubbing my wrists from the chill.
I had a seatmate, and at the brief spell of light she stirred sleepily and cast her eyes over the skyline that ascended from the horizon. "That Chicago?"
I nodded. I didn't know the woman but she was nice enough. She bought me dinner when she saw my uniform and my empty wallet. I'm sure it's a great story to put together in your head. Or at least a sad one. Brave soldier girl comes marching home penniless. She asked me if I had someone waiting for me. I told her that I hoped so, which I guess is better than the truth.
I didn't want to wear the uniform. Papers in my back pocket were all about my discharge, technically, but only by two weeks, and I was willing to keep playing the part and wearing the gear to get a discount here and there. It would only be 'till I got home.
Only 'till I wasn't a stranger
We slipped into Chicago with barely a word, barely a mutter of static on the intercom. The lights were sliding over the seats, over faces, over me, with more frequency, the flickers of faint color muted by shadows of skyscrapers. I saw a taxi and pressed my palm to the window. This was familiar, I knew it.
"I grew up here," I mumbled, not meaning to. My seatmate hummed faintly, probably unsure of a proper response to a companion who'd barely said a word to her 'til then. Behind me, I heard the small chokes of a little one, a baby waking up. Kid was teething. I'd let him chew on my dog tags last rest stop just to coax a smile from his mother. Been so long since someone smiled at me like I did something right for them and meant it.
And then she thanked me. For serving. Made my stomach feel like it was churning seawater.
"My daughter's thinking about getting a tattoo," said the lady beside me, and when I glanced over she looked at me like she expected wisdom and waved her fingers cautiously at my hands. "Sorry… I just saw. She's only seventeen."
I tried to grin; the lady laughed, the way that friendly people do, without inhibition or intimacy.
"Y'know… Should I let her?"
I tried hard not to look at my wrists. Silly, after all, I know what's on there well enough. I showed her the dragon, on the right.
"Depends. What kinda statement does she wanna make for the rest of her life? I got this just before I joined the army. Say something to the parents and all. They're pacifists."
"Oh…" The look on her face made me rasp out something akin to a laugh. I flopped my left arm, half-useless, over on my lap. I've got the Military Police on insignia my bicep, but I didn't need to show her that. Just the little dove, there on that wrist. I traced the ridges, still a little red and raised.
"Just got this," I murmured, and shrugged, eyes darting to the window and back again. Chicago was creeping back around me, but it was late enough to be early and I was tired. I sighed and pulled my sleeve back down. "Guess I wanted it to say something to me."
Another bus, a CTA "Night Owl". Another discount for being in uniform. At that point, the thing I hated most about it all was the questions and the shining in their eyes. I found myself next to an older guy who carried my bag and asked my name like he was building a collection of wounded vets.
I squinted hard against the washed-out burn of florescent lighting and traced patterns in the rubbery patchwork seating with my thumb, and I answered his questions in the barest number of syllables I could offer. Sergeant. Iraq. MP.
Did he really have to ask?
My head was hurting.
Perhaps my sigh, or just me sinking lower into the ratty, stinking seat cover—he got the message and leaned back, smiling with the whole of his time-creased, leathered face.
"Welcome home, Sergeant Rockford. You do this country proud."
And everyone on the bus who was looking at me was nodding sleepily; of course, of course. Patriotism and all that. I could've wrapped myself in Ol' Glory and Jesus and still have been less impressive than in this desert camo. I gritted my teeth and stared at my boots, twitching my left fingers like the pain could just leave me, just like that, if I only tried hard enough to be normal for them.
And outside the grungy, battered window, the sky was a brighter shade of darkness than it'd been. Morning was coming; I groaned and rubbed the heel of my hand into my eyes. Felt like I'd spent the night vomiting, this cold-sweat feeling that was so interlaced with pavement wet with summer rains and smoke and damp paper.
I stayed on that bus until I just couldn't take the closeness, the stares and sympathy my mind was inventing for the sleepy co-riders that could no longer care less for me. And that they didn't now just added to the tumult in my chest. Once I knew the streets, knew I could walk the distance, I hefted my pack onto my good shoulder and tumbled from the slick steps onto a puddle of oil-streaked water, and the Night Owl rumbled off with a spitting of mud and exhaust. I fingered the slip of paper in my pocket and took a step, and I let myself find grim amusement in the notion of burning my uniform and everything that ever evidenced the U.S. Army on me until only my dog tags were left, dangling on a charred ball-and-chain.
And I'd have coffee. I wanted coffee, real and strong, not rations, no weak sludge like you find in the hospitals, the hotels. I'd look out the window. I'd have a dog and I wouldn't have pills or physical therapy. And maybe I could, 'cause it was okay, I was okay and I was home now—
Except I wasn't. Wasn't okay. Home wasn't what I'd thought or wanted and it wasn't the army like I'd hoped. It was a cold morning, damp as mildew, and Chicago was stealing the breath from my throat, and I was staring up at the apartment of the one friend I had left in the world and hoping she had room on the couch for the likes of me. Likes of a failure, or at least a confusion. I wasn't okay.
And that's where, as my watch beeped 0500 hours, I found myself pressed to some doorway in the middle of the city, crying so hard that I couldn't even see it when the sunrise gilded the sky.