“Okay, so who was that one?” she asked, half-laughing at how many times she had queried this of the well-wishers coming through their wedding reception line.
“Barry. He, uh–“
She recognized the name. “He was one of the ones there for the IED wasn’t he?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Knocked him out right away, though, he doesn’t remember anything.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen him at the Project?”
He shook his head.
He smiled awkwardly, the smile of one unsure how to explain.
“I just mean, you asked him if he was working and he said he hasn’t been able to get anything…”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Oh, you mean pride?” she said with a simple bluntness that for some reason aggravated him. As he thought about it he realized it did so because she was right.
“Yes, I suppose” he conceded. Before he could continue, the next guest, one of her high school teachers approached to express congratulations. After the teacher had left he proceeded. “But, I suppose everyone needs some pride, don’t they?”
She thought this over for a moment. “Yes…I guess from what you’ve shared of your experience one might say it was your pride that kept you going until you could find healing?”
“I’d agree to that.”
“Still, I’m sure he could benefit from a friendly hand. Not a knock against his pride, you understand, it’s just we all would benefit from a kind lift.”
“Well I won’t argue with you there. And maybe one day he won’t, either.”
Obviously pleased with their understanding of one another she reached over and gripped his hand with her own. “I love you, you know.”
“I should certainly hope so!” He stroked his thumb along her hand. It was so smooth, so soft…such a complete contrast to the charred, marbled flesh of his own arm. He had been trying to cast around in his mind for a loving sentiment to offer in return, but he didn’t dare say anything now, the tears were too close to the surface. It didn’t matter, though, at this moment she happened to glance over and saw the water forming in his eyes.
“Hey…” she whispered tenderly, “talk to me.” It was a simple, kind invitation, one that let him open up at his own pace.
“Oh, I—uh–it’s hard to explain–” he paused, looking for the right words. How was he to express the notion of ugliness to one so beautiful? “I do think part of it is pride, but that’s not all there is to it,” he began slowly. “Sometimes it’s just hard for the guys to accept that they even deserve to be helped.”
One glance to her made it clear she was troubled and confused by the statement. She didn’t say anything, though, waiting for him to continue. “See, it doesn’t matter even if you were a complete saint, never did anything over there you felt guilty about. Just the fact that you saw some terrible things is enough to make you think like you don’t deserve to be with the innocent. Maybe that’s not a right way to feel, but that’s how it is. Just being a witness to that stuff makes me scarred…and it seems like scars shouldn’t touch beauty.” His eyes trailed down to their still-entwined hands, realizing the Freudian slip in his pronouns.
She followed his gaze, her own eyes moist now. When she spoke, though, it was with a voice calm and clear. “I’ve seen how there’s a tendency to push good things away, to isolate. That’s so no one becomes…hurt by the roughness?” she stroked her finger along the burn on the back of his hand.
He nodded, a lump in his throat.
“Hey look at me,” she said firmly. He obeyed, her eyes entirely unflinching as they stared into his. “Do I look like I have any regrets?”
“You are not damaging me. Now I won’t tell you to never have fears and self-doubts, I understand this is a process and that’s just how it’s going to be. But here’s what I will tell you, we’ll call it marriage rule number one: any time those fears show up you come and tell me so I have a chance to show you how undamaged and whole I feel being with you. You got that?”
He made a mental note to ask her later if she knew how attractive it was when she gave him orders. For the time being he simply whispered “Yes, ma’am,” and let his face break into a sincere smile.
It was only after a few moments of continued eye-gazing that they realized another well-wisher had arrived. It was Carlos, probably the member of his unit who had adjusted back to regular life the most easily. It had been his idea to start the Patterson Project, a local non-profit to help soldiers get integrated back into the real world and connected to their communities. The name came from another member of their unit, Blake Patterson, who had taken his life just five weeks after returning back home.
“Oh hey, don’t stop on my account,” Carlos smiled with raised eyebrows. “Only you’ll understand if I feel a little jealous. See that’s the way this guy always used to look at me.”
“With your ugly mug?” he laughed, reaching out to give a firm, back-slapping hug. When they pulled away Carlos had genuine tears in his eyes.
“Hey look, I know sentimental isn’t really my thing,” Carlos said. “But I really am proud of you, man.” He clapped the groom’s shoulder firmly, then turned to the bride. “And hey, y’know none of us could be happier to have you officially becoming a part of the family. It really means a lot that you wanted to come and help us out at the Project, even though we were all strangers to you. You’re the angel in our lives.”
“That day means a lot to me.” She laughed and glanced to her new husband. “I guess for some pretty obvious reasons.” Carlos concluded his congratulations and moved onwards, leaving the couple alone once more. “But not just because of today,” she continued, “also because I see it as the day I started to empathize.”
Now it was her husband’s turn to look confused. “‘Started to empathize?!’ You’ve always been perfectly understanding.”
She shook her head. “No, I’ve always tried to be nice. But like you were just expressing, there’s pains and pangs I simply didn’t understand, ones I still don’t fully. Something I’ve come to realize is niceness doesn’t go a very long way without being able to grieve together first.”
“Huh,” he mulled the sentiments over.
“You should take that as a compliment, because I’ve only been able to understand from how vulnerable you’ve allowed yourself to be. You’re the gatekeeper, not just to your heart but the hearts of all those with these experiences. It’s your ability to connect to the suffering deep at their cores that forms the conduit through which the rest of us bring our healing and hope.”
He blinked a few times as he processed this, a warm twinkle in his eyes. “Y’know something? I think it’s a good thing we’re getting married.”
“I should certainly hope so!”
And with that, they finally kissed.
Well, there’s our piece for the week. As I said on Monday, the key to all of this was identifying the core principles that each of our two characters represents, and looking for a way to make them relatable to the reader. The groom is the sorrowful, wounded heart. Not in a bitter, angry way, but grieving nonetheless. The wife is innocence and joy, but as she states, she doesn’t have the empathetic experiences necessary to share that warmth with others on her own. Then, to help make their experience relatable I fit them into this wedding dynamic, as I think most people have an idea of a wedding being not only the marriage of two people, but of all the things they represent. With that I knew how they should sound, how they would react to one another’s feelings, and the message I needed to steer the piece to as a whole.
Over the past few weeks my short pieces have each been built around a different core facet of storytelling. With Caterpillars, The House’s Finest Hour, and now Scars and Soothing we have represented overall plot, scene descriptions, and dialogue. This is one way (of many) that a story can be divided into individual parts. Come back on Monday when we will look into the blending of these three more closely. Until then, have a great weekend!