I dream about David far more than I should. It happened again this week. The dreams are similar: We are in someone’s back yard, talking, laughing, then he says he has to go. I ask him not to, and with a jolt I remember he is dead. It is not a happy dream.
David and I had a short-lived romance when I was 18 years old, and that should have been the end of it, but my subconscious is still working things out.
I’ve written about David before: The 21-year-old Vietnam vet with the thousand-yard stare, who seemed by moments a boy and at others a world-weary, war-weary guy plagued by demons.
I have a few photos of David, all of them taken in Vietnam. One is early on, when he still resembled the teenager he was. Another shows a 20-year-old man who looks 40 standing in front of a helicopter wearing his gear. He is skinny and unshaven. His eyes are slits rimmed by dark circles beneath furrowed eyebrows. He looks tired and cruel, nothing at all like the guy I met a year later.
David was handsome, the kind of oh-my-gosh-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me handsome that prompted my best friend to call first thing the morning after she’d met him at a party.
“Wait till you see the new guy,” she said, in a tone that suggested OMG.
A couple of days later, I walked into my friend’s kitchen, and there was David leaning against the counter. It was a Clark-Gable-at-the-foot-of-the-staircase moment.
We clicked. The day after I met him, David took me to his parent’s house. While his mom fixed sandwiches, David showed me some photos from Vietnam, but I shut him down when we went from beach shots to the realities of war. David had been in long-range reconnaissance, one of the most dangerous and demanding operations in Vietnam. He received the Bronze Star Medal with valor device for his bravery, though he never once mentioned it. He carried physical scars and bullet fragments from that encounter. He could live with those, but the emotional trauma was taking him down.
Though he wasn’t much older than the boys I had dated, he was very different. Most of the guys I hung out with were in college, determined to keep their student deferments so they wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. David had lived their worst nightmares and then some. I didn’t understand the damage done.
We weren’t together long. After we ended, I ran into him from time to time, then he seemed to disappear.
David died suddenly nearly 10 years ago, but I didn’t find out until years later. Even so, it was a shock and a loss.
I liked the idea of that dangerous boy running loose in the world, and part of me hoped I would see him again.
I would ask if he still kept those photos in a shoebox in the closet. We would sit down together and look at them.
This time, I would listen to him tell his stories until one by one his demons were slain.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.