Matt & zoe, p.21
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       Matt & Zoe, p.21

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  I cover my mouth with my hand, and my eyes water until I blink the tears back. I meet Matt’s eyes—searching. Searching to know if he’s going to be around, or is he going to break Jasmine’s heart. I’m a big girl—I can fend for myself. Jasmine doesn’t need any more heartbreak.

  He seems to understand what I’m thinking, because he doesn’t take his eyes off of me, even as he reaches for Jasmine’s hand and mine. Finally he looks away from me, and towards my little sister.

  “I think that’s the most beautiful gift I’ve ever been given,” he says. His voice chokes up as he says the words. His reaction looks sincere, but I wonder why he reacts so emotionally.

  I hate it that I’m so distrustful.

  As we sit down to eat, I find myself once again thrown into an uncomfortable role. It was my mother who always said things like, “put your napkin in your lap,” and “don’t put your feet on the dinner table.” Now I’m the one in that role, and I find it more than a little bit strange when I tell Jasmine to please eat somewhere in the vicinity of her plate so it’s not such a mess to clean up. Jasmine may be a third grader, but she eats like a four-year-old.

  Through the meal she tells a long meandering story about her friend Hannah who has a brother in the Navy. “Hannah says the Navy is better than the Army because they have spaceships. I told her that’s not true. Nobody has spaceships. Is that true Zoe? Does the Navy has spaceships?”

  I shift in my seat a little, unsure what to say, but I finally land on, “Have, Jasmine. Not have. I don’t think any of them have spaceships Jasmine. Except maybe the Air Force.”

  Jasmine huffs. “No.” She drags out the word no. As if it were spelled nooooo. Her tone is sharp. “None of them have spaceships. Spaceships aren’t real. That’s what Mrs. Bates told us.”

  Matt raised his eyebrows.

  “Who is Mrs. Bates?” I asked.

  “She was the substitute this afternoon. When I got mad because Hannah said the Navy was better than the Army, Mrs. Bates made us sit in timeout for five minutes. I shouldn’t have been sent to sit timeout. Hannah was wrong. She shouldn’t say that.”

  That’s a lot to take in. Why did they have a substitute this afternoon? And why did Jasmine care whether Hannah said anything about the Army versus the Navy… I didn’t even care about that. “Sweetie, you don’t have to worry about that. It doesn’t matter what she says about that.”

  “It does! You were in the Army!”

  I look at Matt in hopes of gleaning some clues from him about how to handle this—he’s got a lot more experience with kids than I do. He doesn’t offer any help. I look back to Jasmine. “Look at it like this. Who is better… Barbie? Or Dora the Explorer?”

  I was taking a chance with that question. She looks at me with scorn on her face, and says, “Well, Dora, of course.”

  “Well, would you fight with Hannah if she said Barbie was better?”

  Jasmine is puzzled. “No. That would be stupid.”

  “Well, this is kind of the same thing.”

  She shakes her head violently. “No, it’s not! It’s not the same thing at all!”

  I try to hide my exasperation. It’s never easy reasoning with a third-grader. “What would Dora do if Barbie stole her backpack?”

  Jasmine looks at me as if I’ve gone stark raving mad. “Why would she do that?”

  I close my eyes and count to ten thousand. Or ten. I’m not sure how much. “It doesn’t matter why.”

  “Well of course it matters.”

  I fall back to the least useful response ever. “Eat your chicken.”

  Matt doesn’t even bother to try to hide his amusement. His eyes are raised slightly, his lips curled up, his eyes flashing a hint of mirth as he eats silently.

  “So where were you?” I ask.

  “This afternoon? I had a meeting at the superintendent’s office.” As soon as he says the words, the mirth disappears from his face.

  “Is everything okay?”

  He sets his chicken down, and takes a drink of wine. He holds it in his mouth for a moment, clearly thinking about the question. He’s silent long enough that I become uncomfortable. Eventually, he says, “I’m not sure. The whole situation was surreal. I got called in to meet with the superintendent, who wanted to talk about why we had modified the schedule for….” He doesn’t finish the sentence. Instead his eyes dart to Jasmine.

  That’s weird. “Why did he do that?”

  “That’s the thing. I’ve never had the superintendent get involved in anything like that before. For one thing, it just wasn’t that big of a deal. And for another it’s usually the principal or the counselors or special education. I don’t think it has anything to do with that… I think this was all about the strike.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  He shakes his head. “I don’t know that there is anything to do,” he says. “It wasn’t an official reprimand—I think it was more an effort of intimidation.”

  “Well, that’s bullshit.”

  Jasmine giggles. “Zoe said a bad word.” Silence descends on the room for a few seconds… then Matt smirks, letting out a tiny snort.

  “Whoops,” I say. “Sorry about that, Jasmine.”

  At 8 o’clock, after a cutthroat game of Uno, I take Jasmine up to bed. As always, she gives me a halfhearted, “Please, Zoe?”

  It really is halfhearted. I can tell that she needs the rest.

  When I get back downstairs, Matt’s pouring us another glass of wine. I take the proffered glass and say, “How about we sit on the porch? We won’t have many more good nights for that.”

  We sit down on the rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. The wood underneath creaks and groans—the house is old, and it’s settled a lot over the years. Despite the creaking, it is sound.

  We sit quietly for a few minutes. Fall is coming… it’s already dark at eight o’clock. I find myself hoping for an Indian summer—the longer I can put off the snow the better. I grew up here and I’m no stranger to cold, but five years of being stationed in Kentucky, Iraq, and Tokyo have rendered me uninterested in snow. We’ll have plenty of it by January and February, so with any luck at least November and December won’t be so bad.

  The deepest part of winter is always a bit of an ordeal around here. Horses can’t stay in their stalls, regardless of whether or not there is snow on the ground. Every winter as far back as I can remember, along with shoveling the walks and driveway, we shoveled a path from the stables to the paddock. The horses know the land well, and even in deep snow they’re generally okay. Before we send them out in the wintertime, extra care is required, when we change their blankets and harnesses and double the amount of times we have to clean and muck out the stalls.

  On top of that, winter is just more expensive for horses. Up until the first frost, the horses live primarily on grazing, though we supplement that with hay. During the winter I’ll be buying several bales of hay for each horse each day. That adds up to a lot of food—and a lot of money—very quickly. I’ve got enough for the short term, but there’s this cold pit of anxiety when I think of that routine extra expense when I don’t have a job.

  “You’ve gone off a long ways, haven’t you?” Matt’s words jerk me back to the present. I take a sip of my wine, stalling for time while I compose myself.

  “I was. Worrying about money and the horses and winter and Jasmine.”

  “That’s a lot of worry all at once.”

  “Isn’t that what being an adult is all about? Worry and responsibility?”

  Matt winces. “I don’t know about all that,” he says. “I feel like there ought to be a lot more to life than that.”

  I shrug. “My parents seemed to have that… more… they knew what they loved and wanted to do. I’ve never had that… I’m seriously clueless about my future.”

  “Maybe you don’t need to worry about all of that right now,” he says.

  “I’m twenty-four, Matt. It’s time for me to figure out what I want to d
o when I grow up.”

  He snorts. “Good luck with that. I don’t think anybody knows for sure.”

  “What about teaching?” I ask. “How did you get into that?”

  He stares out into the growing darkness, seeming to compose an answer in his head. Just before the silence becomes interminable, he says, “I had a teacher who inspired me. He made a real difference in my life, at a time when I needed what he had to offer. That’s why I ended up focusing on education. Honestly, I wanted to teach high school. Jobs were scarce when I graduated, and when I got an offer in South Hadley, I took it.”

  “You didn’t look in Florida?”

  In a slow, thoughtful tone, he says, “If a hurricane were to wash all of Florida away into the Atlantic Ocean, I’d be unlikely to shed a tear.”

  Wow. That drives home the fact that there’s a great deal I don’t know about Matt Paladino. What is it about his past that makes him so evasive? What is it that makes him so angry?

  “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why you feel that way.”

  He shrugs, and says, “Not much to tell. Florida is a cesspool. There’s no funding for schools. Kids don’t get textbooks, and the teachers barely get paid. In Florida, I could do better waiting tables.”

  I’m sure all of that is true. I’m also sure that it’s only part of the story.

  “Have it your way, Matt.” I don’t even bother to hide my annoyance.

  “You know, for someone who pushes so hard for me to open up about my past, you’ve said nothing about your time in the Army.”

  Now my annoyance flashes into anger. “That’s because it was a vicious, traumatic experience. I don’t like to dredge it back up.”

  “You don’t say?” His eyes are gentle, but I feel as if he’s laughing at me. Caught in my own trap. I ought to know well, that war is hardly the only traumatic experience. Look at Jasmine… She went off to camp one morning and returned an orphan that afternoon. She’ll probably be in therapy for a decade. I probably ought to be. Maybe it’s wrong for me to push Matt so hard.

  All the same, secrets bother the hell out of me.

  Chapter Seventeen

  You can shove your support (Zoe)

  I’m not ready for this.

  The small conference room in the Student Union feels crowded even though there aren’t that many of us in here. Part of that is the lack of windows. Part of it is the oversized table that’s out of proportion to the room. At the head end of the table is Craig Stills, the Director of Veterans Services at UMASS. He has a fierce grin on his face, like a wolf that’s just taken down its prey. I’m sandwiched in between Craig and Nicole, who showed up in her uniform. Me and Nicole are the only women in the room. At the end of the table opposite Craig are two men, both in their early twenties, both looking as if they are uncomfortable in their own skin. Hair cropped extremely short, I would expect either one of them could change back into uniform this afternoon and look wholly in place.

  Across from me, slumped in a chair with his eyes closed, is a man with disheveled looking hair that’s well past his shoulders. His tangled blond beard is overdue for a trim. His skin is weathered, giving him an overall appearance that seems out of sync somehow. I can’t quite place what’s wrong, until I look at his hands. No age spots… His hands look young. He looks like he’s twenty, but his eyes make him look fifty.

  When Craig clears his throat and says, “Let’s get started,” the man across from me looks up and meets my eyes.

  That’s when I realize I was wrong—he’s not young. His eyes make him look a thousand years old.

  “I think we’ll all introduce ourselves first,” Craig says. “I’m assuming you don’t know each other. I’m Craig Stills, Director of Veterans Services. You’ve all come to my attention—one way or another—that you’re combat veterans. While I’m sure there are more on campus, we’ll start with this group and maybe grow over time. Long story short, I was an Army Sergeant until late 2005, when the insurgents decided it was time for me to medically retire.”

  As Craig probably expected, his grim humor evokes chuckles around the room. “Anyway… After a year of physical therapy and recovery, I got my Master’s in social work at NC State, then came to work here.”

  Craig points at me. Why we can’t go around the table in the other direction? Whatever. “I’m Zoe Welch. Military police, one tour in Iraq, then I was stationed in Japan for a little bit more than a year. I just got home a few weeks ago.”

  Craig smiles and says, “You don’t have to talk about it, obviously, but there are some unusual circumstances around your life now. Do you want to say anything?”

  No, I want to punch him in the face.

  I sigh. “My parents were killed in an accident a few weeks ago. I have custody of my eight-year-old sister. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do—I didn’t have a plan for when I got out of the military because I was planning on staying in.”

  Craig gives me a warm smile, and says, “Welcome home, Zoe.” His words make me choke up a little. Now I want to punch him even more.

  “Nicole?”

  Nicole grimaces. She elbows me in the side. “Me and Zoe were best friends as kids and enlisted together. We were in Iraq together. I got out of the Army before she did. Now I mostly police up drunken frat boys and investigate stolen laptops and dormitory sexual assaults… in other words, I’m a UMASS cop.”

  Craig says, “Nicole won’t tell you, but I will. She was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.”

  Nicole tries to waive it off. “It was just for showing up.”

  I interrupt. “That’s bullshit Nicole. You saved our lives.”

  She rolls her eyes.

  “Mike?” Craig directs the word at Tom Cruise look-alike at the end of the table. He seems to sit at attention. Clear complexion, dark brown hair, light blue eyes and a cocky grin. His striking appearance is marred by his obvious arrogance.

  Or is that just me reading my own bias into the situation?

  “Mike Palmer. Infantry, Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m a junior here majoring in engineering.”

  No… I’m guessing my assessment was correct.

  The next man speaks without prompting. Like Mike, he has a formal, almost rigid look about him. Extremely dark skin, with very short cropped hair, he’s wearing a polo shirt with the creases ironed so sharp you could cut yourself. He’d look more at home in a business meeting than on campus here. “I’m Terrell Palmer. Marine Corps. Civil affairs. I did four tours in Iraq.”

  My mouth drops open. It’s not that I didn’t know people that served that many tours…it’s just that I didn’t know anybody who’d served that many and come out of it without being a little crazy.

  Of course, it was pretty early to tell anything about Terrell.

  Finally it’s the turn of the guy across from me. He lets silence weigh the room down for a few seconds before speaking. Finally he said, I’m Luke Osmond. I was a sniper.”

  Luke says nothing more. I’m not the only one who notices. Craig looks at him, raises an eyebrow, and says, “That’s it?”

  Luke shrugs. “Ain’t that enough?”

  I guess so.

  “I called you all together because I believe there are particular challenges associated with being a combat veteran returning to college—over and above what others might face. I want to give you guys a chance to network… And maybe lean on each other a little. Sometimes it’s hard to find people who understand what language we’re speaking.”

  Luke snorts. “Who would want to?”

  “I don’t have any problems readjusting,” Mike says. “I’m happy to help anyone who is having trouble.” As he says the words, he eyes Luke.

  “We’ll see how things develop,” Craig says. “Don’t rule out how much or what help you may need in the future. I’ll tell you a fascinating fact that I learned last year. During the Gulf War? There was a surge of PTSD diagnoses among World War II veterans. The same thing happened for Vietnam veterans during Iraq.
Sometimes this shit sets in a long time after the fact.”

  Mike smirks. “Like when people are looking for a check from the government?”

  Craig frowns.

  Luke shakes his head. “I get it. You’re one of those jerks who thinks he knows everything.”

  Mike freezes. Then in a conversational voice, he says, “And you’re one of those crybabies who sits on the street begging for money saying ‘poor me’ aren’t you?”

  Always helpful, Nicole blurts out, “Motherfucker.”

  “Gentlemen…ladies… that’ll be quite enough.” Craig says. “Maybe we should stick to topics that have to do with supporting each other.”

  “You can shove your support up your ass.” After he says the words, Mike gathers his bag and walks out, leaving the door ajar.

  A weird silence settles over the room after his departure.

  Nicole stands up, walks to the door and closes it. “He’s kinda mad.”

  That evokes a choked laugh from Luke.

  Terrell says, “Looks like he needs this group more than anyone.”

  “Maybe,” Nicole quips. “Support groups can’t cure being an asshole.”

  The four of us remaining in the room look at Craig as if to say, “What now?”

  Luke actually asks it. “What now?”

  Craig says “We continue as planned. This isn’t for everybody. Not everybody needs it, and even less people want it. It’s up to you guys. I called this group together for you—if you think you can use the support, here it is.”

  Nicole gets a wry smile on her face. “Well, I’m staying for all the drama.” The rest of us laugh.

  Craig says, “Why don’t we get started with you guys telling us a little bit about your biggest challenges since returning to school.”

  Luke says, “That’s easy. It’s being around all these people.”

  I understand that. I honestly thought I was going to go insane in Tokyo sometimes. I grew to tolerate the crowding, and even to love the city, but I never felt entirely comfortable.

  Craig asks, “What is it about the people that bothers you?”

  “I guess there’s some diamonds in the mix, but most of them are over-privileged, immature kids. It’s all about partying and getting drunk and getting laid and who gives a shit about anything else. When I tell people I was in the Army they look at me like I said I was from Mars. As far as they’re concerned I might as well be.”

 
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