I walked away from the bus as quickly as possible to get away from the few dozen young adults that I could not relate to in the slightest. They had all been given this trip from their parents for graduating college. I had saved parts of my paycheck during the last year to pay for the trip myself. They were all happy and full of life and childish; I was bitter. Their happiness was alien to me and I felt like I had lived a thousand years where they were mere babes.
They thought my speaking about Afghanistan was bragging; it wasn’t. Afghanistan was central to my life and my understanding of the world had been severely warped from my time there. I couldn’t relate to their stories of “stressful finals” when I remembered the shattered bones of bodies I had carried and the shocked eyes of the dead. I knew I couldn’t speak to them about that, so my stories were tame and they couldn’t even handle the tame stories. I had learned how to speak to civilians after I saw the aghast faces of some other services members when I spoke about what I had seen. If service members reacted with shocked silence, I couldn’t tell Shelly from Human Resources about piles of rotting bodies in the sun. I hated the college kids for their innocence, and they ostracized me for my experience. The innocent don’t wish to know about the nightmares of those who “serve and protect”. Their innocence is purposefully ignorant, and I suppose that is their right. But it is my right to think they are self-centered and childish.
This is what you wanted. You wanted to see the world, remember? You just didn’t want to see it with a bunch of children. I know you miss the men who you served with, the men who would understand your silence or occasional observances of the world. The kids on the bus didn’t appreciate you mentioning how horrific the firebombing had to have been on the civilians of Dresden. You didn’t even mention how you imagined their screams as they ran through the streets with their faces melting. You could practically smell the burnt flesh from that raid seventy years ago. The tour group had seemed so bored. Did they not realize how horrible the history of this town was?
The laughter of the group faded in the distance as I walked quickly away…just away.
Before long, I found myself in silent streets. Right, left, left, right, straight. I tried to remember the general direction of the bus. I had three hours to explore before the bus would leave for Prague. The streets were cobblestone and my ankles began to strain and ache as my feet had to search for proper footing with each step. With each step further from the bus, I could breathe a little easier. I needed to find a place to sit. As I turned another corner, I gazed up and came to a quick stop.
The wall ahead of me was huge, tiled, and filled with a mural of horses and men. The tiles were stark white and yellow. Carvings around the mural were ornate. The magnificence of a wall that I had come across had me awestruck. As I studied the mural, I looked at the prancing steps of the horses, the bugles blown by footmen, the faces of the men on horses. Below each man on a horse was carved a name. Augustus, Georg, Frederick… These were rulers, leaders of the area in which Dresden resided. Each man and his accompanying footmen were slightly different in style, but the faces of each ruler were the same: somber, strong, both beaten down and full of pride.
I studied the rulers further. They had reigned over this area through countless sieges and attacks; they had ridden into battle to protect their country and their people. I bet they didn’t complain to Shelly in HR about the sounds of a man’s skull getting split open by their axe. They had fought and defended the land on which I currently stood.
I leaned against the wall across the street and put myself in their shoes, closing my eyes and imagining a siege. The clangs of battle chimed in my ears, and I saw each ruler and their armies fight in my head. All of the rulers lost men and some lost their own lives. Men’s lives are pointlessly lost on the battlefield. The people walking beneath the mural now didn’t think about the lowly enlisted men who died in these sieges. It didn’t matter to them what happened to a man centuries ago; just like they didn’t care about the men dying in Afghanistan right now. Willfully ignorant.
The bitterness rose in my throat.
I walked the length of the mural and said the name of each ruler as I passed; I would remember the rulers and their men.
I walked into a courtyard and entered a shop. Gelato filled the containers behind a glass case, and the glittery bar was a harsh cry different from the battlefields that I still saw in my head. The man behind the bar smiled at me. He was cute, and decently young. I was 22, and this man was probably 26. He spoke to me in Italian. Remembering some Latin from high school, I stumbled through my order of chocolate gelato. He was patient with me and looked at me slightly concerned. I probably looked shell-shocked. My anxiety attacks tend to do that but I have to keep acting like everything is okay through my panicked eyes. He handed the ice cream to me, and shook his head at my money as I tried to pay. He smiled at me and gestured for me to sit at the bar. His presence calmed me.
I smiled back and took a seat. As I watched him work, I imagined a life here in Dresden with him. I had $40,000 in the bank; I could live off of that for long enough to get a good job here. But the Marine Corps…I still had half of a year on my contract. If I didn’t come back to America, I would be a deserter during a time of war. But who cares? I could hide away, right?
The man behind the bar looked at me and grinned again. We tried talking but the language barrier was too much.
I wonder if he would beat me. Leave it to me to leave my life for a new one and pick a wife-beating man simply because he has a nice smile and gave me gelato. I wonder if he could handle my stories. We could teach each other how to speak each other’s language. Love doesn’t need a spoken language; our bodies could have long conversations.
I was being silly. I was just a girl in a bar to him.
I finished my gelato and jumped down from the barstool. I walked out without speaking to him or even glancing in his direction.
I walked towards the tour bus. I saw giggling girls from the tour heading in the same direction and I rolled my eyes.
With every step that took me closer back to reality, my anxiety began to rise again. I could just leave. I could just run away. I don’t need to go back to that life, to the life where I had nightmares and regrets. His smile was so comforting…and he would give me silence.
I glanced down at my watch. Ten minutes until the bus leaves.
I had to go back to that bar. What would I say? I couldn’t even speak to him!
I sprinted back in the direction that I thought the bar was in; I hurriedly looked at every shop, hoping to see the gelato store. I couldn’t find it and my time was running out. I had to give up on this silly dream; I had to go back to my nightmares.
Dejected, I walked back towards the bus.
Suddenly, I heard feet hitting the cobblestones behind me. I swung around in time to see the man wave at me, gesturing for me to stop. We grinned at each other and he panted to a halt in front of me. His hands reached out for mine, and he held them tightly. Speaking in Italian, he rambled for a minute or two and I could understand none of it. He knew I couldn’t understand and he still spoke; he moved my hands around in his hands, playing with my fingers with his strong hands. His eyes were kind and sweet and his voice was sensual and comforting. Reaching up with one hand, he stroked my cheek. My eyes closed at his soft touch.
Two minutes until the bus would leave.
We parted ways, and I ran through the streets of cobblestone with his touch burning a fire in my cheek. I ran past the wall of rulers and smiled at them as I passed.
I would remember Dresden.