A silent and very secret battle is raging. It is a constant confrontation which never lets up, like being in a real-time imaginary world filled with non-stop mental fistfighting. It is no small thing to take thoughts captive, when those thoughts take form like a never-ending silvery rocket-worm commuter train rushing by, car after car, inches from the edge of the station platform.
“I, Jason Ford Kentworth, do solemnly swear…”
The flash thoughts are what disorient him the most, sometimes even to moments of absolute confusion. There are many kinds of flashes.
A persistent wife’s blue-green eyes flashing in stubborn resolve.
Humid summer’s eve thunderstorm lightening flashes.
A flawless diamond as it flashes in the sunlight.
A photographer’s camera bulb flashes.
Distant impacting artillery flashes.
Ambulance light-bar flashes.
“…that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States…”
The thought flashes are the worst flashes of all. They are what cause his lack of concentration, and they get in the way of his emotional good order and discipline almost on an hourly basis. He sees them in his mind’s eye, sometimes going down a trapline of randomly connected events or images from years ago in Iraq or before he ever joined. Even as the business client in front of him is explaining the next round of contract expectations for a new downtown office opening in two weeks. If only the client knew it was a one-sided conversation half the time.
“…against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
Tonight there are unrelenting flashes of thought stampeding through his troubled mind. Familiar, violent ones that take him on hysterical paths which tangle with one another and braid themselves into a rope of mental and emotional horror that no one sees.
He carefully locks the SUV in its out-facing parking spot, and reaches for the little girl’s extended hand as he and his wife walk her to the restaurant entrance.
“If you didn’t want to get dinner out tonight, Jason, all you had to do was say so. We can still leave and go back home, without punishing the two of us for whatever it was…”
Something bitter and dark and hateful boils up into his throat, but he knows he would not forgive himself if he blurted it out on her.
Kris, Honey, I love you so much but you cannot even understand that nothing about this mental state tonight is your fault, or the baby’s fault. Absolutely zero. Not even worth trying to explain.
Reaching for the glass door with restaurant hours peeling from the lower pane, he stares angrily at her until she trails off and looks away, hurt.
Great. You just made it even worse.
Other patrons seated around them and at the bar are having a normal Friday night full of brazenly stupid ‘fun’ and carousing, but to Jay, every casual glance is a sneer or a look of poison. Every laugh is a mocking apathetic barb. A secret reality of threats and darkness and people who don’t care and would not think twice about harming the innocent swirls around him. On the misappropriated advice of a crusty military axiom, part of Jay’s brain formulates a workable plan to kill everyone in the restaurant if needed, as the flustered waitress scribbles their drink order on a soggy notepad.
Shifting in the booth uncomfortably, with his elbow Jay adjusts the grip position of the loaded Kimber 1911, .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol concealed on his right hip. The muscles in his upper back and neck are taut like elastic cords, and a hot tingle rises behind his ears as a room full of eyes may or may not be drilling into the base of his skull.
Is she making me sit with my back to the room on purpose? To prove a point about how mentally weak I have become? Why is she doing this to me?
Kris is still feeling the sting of his silence since they left the house, but seeing something else that has just gone wrong, she inhales slowly and forces a smile.
“Come on, Cassie, let’s go potty before our food gets here.”
As their daughter happily scoots out of the booth, Kris silently, knowingly, motions for him to switch sides of the table while they are up. Her side is against the rear wall, and it is suddenly obvious to Jay that his wife has sensed and is trying to fix his tactical crisis here in their booth.
What a woman. What a friend. You are such an a**hole for even doubting her.
Mom and daughter walk away from the table and Jay slides out stiffly, hoping the people around them take no notice of the movement. He thinks to himself how wonderful it would be if the room were silent and empty. Well, not silent. Distracting sounds sometimes lessen the volume of the imaginary voices in his head, but there is no substitute for being privately, peacefully, alone.
He settles into the other side of the booth, and can theoretically begin to relax. Kris and little Cassie return momentarily, and suddenly he is inexplicably happy inside to see them. His heart leaps like they have not been gone mere minutes. This caravan of disjointed thoughts has made it seem like hours since they got up. In another minute or two he would have begun considering leaving their table to stride back and see if something had gone south in the Ladies’ room, or if an AQ-trained insurgent had taken his girls hostage or worse.
Because that sounds absolutely feasible, surely. You need help.
He breathes a sigh of relief, but in an instant the joy of seeing them back at the table evaporates. As Cassie reaches out stubby fingers for her crayons which are now on the wrong side of the booth, she dashes her cup of pink lemonade and ice all over the tabletop.
Stress and arousal. That’s what the counselors call it. Whatever it is, it is bitterly infuriating. Post Traumatic Stress Arousal causes fury, and at the same time is caused by fury: a devastatingly ironic conundrum. And Jay’s reality.
Pink lemonade sloshes across menus, napkins, and flatware, with a parade of ice cubes in tow.
In Jay’s clouded and warped mentality, the night, the dinner, their very reputation as a small respectable family, is ruined in one brief mistake of his precious six-year-old. The rage lurking just below the surface of his euphoria and frustration suddenly explodes up like a volcano under intense pressure, and conflicting emotions thrash his mind. The room begins to vibrate and shimmer, as he tries to maintain control. He senses his face has contorted into a mask of hateful spite. He is involuntarily glowering, jaw clenched, fists balled on the table as the drink pools around them and begins dripping onto the vinyl seat covering.
While one part of his mind acknowledges that this is just pink lemonade and a small child, another side of Jay rages uncontrollably at the removal of order and the injection of chaos, the destruction of anonymity and the sudden harsh glare of attention from every other diner.
It’s not just a spilled drink, it’s a lack of caution and discipline by those he most cares about. An irrational, illogical slither of thought begins to plot a course through his mind, millisecond by millisecond as the drink spreads in slow motion across the table. His synapses quickly link this spilled beverage to an imaginary day in the future where Cassie abandons disciplined caution and crashes her car into the back of a semi tractor trailer at the young age of eighteen. This scenario plays its way to a devastating conclusion in his mind, seemingly disconnected from that fact that its just a six-year-old who has accidentally spilled a lemonade.
His frustration with Cassie’s 18-year-old future self combines with the situation at hand, and logic is abandoned. The most exasperating part is the realization of just how absurd these clashing viewpoints are, even as the anger continues to pulsate. And he can’t get a grip.
In Jay’s warped mental awareness, his wife has just allowed this incident to happen by not foreseeing the risk of spillage and taking action to prevent it. Part of his frustration orients itself at Kris like a laser, despite the fact that he was sitting at the same table in the same moments prior, and could have, should have, foreseen the same event himself.
Kris sees his anger, and quickly springs into action. Her pulse quickens, and she deftly contains part of the icy puddle with a dam of napkins and the edge of her hand. Cassie notices his mask of dark displeasure, and slowly realizes her daddy is angry again. Thinking this anger is directed toward her, she begins to slowly lower her head as tears well up and her lip begins to quiver.
He wants to see himself reach across and gently squeeze her shoulder, or at least smile and wink to let her know its no big deal, but this raging carnival of senseless anger won’t allow for this incident to just be “no big deal”. It is a big deal. The 18-year-old love of his life, his baby, crashing her car is a big deal.
His courageous and long-suffering wife failing to keeping an eye on the details and not helping prevent negative consequences from happening to their daughter is a big deal.
His own lack of foresight and this inability to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the clueless and potentially hostile restaurant patrons is a big deal. The instinct and desire to put on a happy face is met with cynical, depressed laughter in his mind.
Why can’t I just shut off the side of my brain that stays intense, that overreacts, that finds shelter in hatred and rage, and can’t let something go?
Kris sees that her efforts have not made the situation ok. She feels the familiar crushing weight of hopelessness, and the creeping sense of failure that has pervaded her heart for years since he returned from the war. If she cannot even do something as simple as mop up spilled lemonade to his satisfaction, she has no hope of ever being the loving and cherished wife that she wants so much to be. The false inadequacy grips at her throat, and her mind numbs itself, anticipating the flustered waitress who will approach at any moment with an exasperated sigh and a fistful of paper towel.
Jay is suddenly acutely aware that his wife has just tried her very best to expertly handle the spill, and somewhere inside he is deeply appreciative. Just like somewhere inside a swamp there are pockets of fresh water. He also sees the tears forming in his daughter’s eyes.
It is in this moment that the anger and frustration shifts to a torrential flood of regret.
Regret that his wife does not know how he really feels about her.
Regret that Simmons was assigned to gun on the Humvee that day and bled out before the medevac bird from Taji had a clear LZ.
Regret that none of these people sitting around in the adjoining booths and tables even know what Simmons did for them.
Regret for what he would like to do to them right now in punishment of their apathy toward Simmons’ sacrifice.
Regret that he has made a mountain of this lemonade-flavored mole hill.
Regret that his love, his little girl, has no idea what is really tormenting him, and thinks it is her.
God, help. This is more than I can bear, and I am done trying to bear it on my own power.
It all caves in at once and he cannot stop his own tears that suddenly spring forth. He silently stares at a molasses and bourbon swiss gimmick burger on the menu through a thick wavy flood of heartbreak.
It looks to all the world that he is having an emotional breakdown about a kid spilling a drink.
And all the world is so, so wrong in that assessment.