He was handsome, mid-twenties perhaps, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and remote, wary almost as if he were watching you even when his back was turned. The hard angle of his jaw appeared more an after effect of his tryst with life than the shape that existed from birth. Intensity radiated off of him, such that the timid would likely give him wide berth. But she, she liked intensity and it caught her attention, attracted her strangely. She turned to watch him discreetly. She was stretching, and he was adding weights to his bench press bar. It was unusual for a woman to be in the weight room at the gym in those days, but it had become a natural habitat for her, the wife of a competitive heavy-weight weightlifter. It was a slow time in the weight room, mid-afternoon. That’s when she usually came. She felt awkward later in the day, when it was full of men. Now there were just the two of them, and yet the space, which normally at this hour would have been laid-back, began to raise the hair on the back of her neck.
She started her exercise routine, and he sat on the bench watching. He made no attempt to be coy or surreptitious. Neither was he rude nor boorish. It was as if he’d been stripped bare of any desire to engage with the tiresome games of polite interplay, like a man with no lies left in him.
“You’re new here,” she said without looking at him. It was mid-semester at the university, and the weight room crowd didn't usually change at that time of year.
“That I am,” he replied without reducing the directness of his stare.
“You in graduate school?” There was more latitude for graduates and that would explain his presence now.
“I think so. I’m just not sure yet.”
“They let you in on that basis?”
“They don’t know what my basis is.”
“Ah, I see.”
“No you don’t.” The words came with certainty. He was a man setting some rules of engagement, and she noted it.
She picked up her dumb bells and started her next repetition. She wasn't sure how to respond. But after that set, her curiosity began to own her and she took a risk. “What don’t I see?”
He didn't answer
She tried a different route. “What’s your degree program in?”
“A study I find quite interesting,” she said.
“It’s not a study for me.” Again the response was uncommonly frank.
“A path then, a way to understand or make sense of something?”
“That would be right.”
She put her weights down and sat on one of the other benches.
“What would you say if I told you I just got back from Vietnam, and I went AWOL?”
“That’s why you’re here in Canada?”
“Yes. I need time to figure things out. They’ll be looking for me; my rank, my status, what I've seen. Then they’ll be coming for me.”
“I have no use for that war. My husband’s a dodger. That’s why we’re here.”
“Your husband? You don’t wear a ring, why is that?”
“We were forced to get married when we crossed into Canada. We haven’t reconciled to that yet.”
“So you’re free to come and go?”
She had never been put in that position before. She had allowed herself the sense of owning her own life, not being ruled by a husband’s hand. She felt independent, like her own person, had her own friends, male and female, but she could feel where he was going, toward something more real, more honest. It was a place she’d avoided. She stared at the floor unable to answer.
He chuckled in a knowing sort of way.
“Why did you go to war?” She wanted to change the topic.
“A family of war heroes. My father and grandfather graduated from West Point. A man’s got to find out who he is sometime. That was the way I chose.”
“Did you find out?”
He shrugged. “Sounds like a simple question to answer, doesn't it? Well it’s not. But I did find out what a load of crap war is. And I at least found out that there is a limit to how long I’ll lie to myself. And that month I had to wait for an honorable discharge was a month too long. He looked down at the floor and shook his head as he huffed air out his nose. Without looking up he continued. “My father said, ‘Couldn't you have waited one month more? What a mess you've made of your life now.’” Then he raised his head and looked right at her. “I really think he thinks that if I had just been discharged honorably, I’d be fine now. Fine now.” He snorted. “What a laugh.”
She could feel her heart go out to him. She understood struggle and parental disappointment and confusion, but her life had not yet demanded the level of integrity his did.
He turned around and lay down on the bench and began lifting.
“You need a spotter?” she asked. He had a lot of weight on the bar.
“Yeah, that would be good.”
She came over and stood at the head of the bench, ready. Being this much closer to him felt alarming, the effect it had on her. He was very strong and had no trouble with that lift. He had a hint of a laugh on his face as he sat up. He’d reeled her closer. She acknowledged his ploy with a scolding smile.
She returned to her weights and moved on in her routine. She felt unsettled. She was taken with this stranger, his raw honesty, his command of life. And more than that, his company had caused her to walk further down the road of reality concerning the truth about her marriage than she had been prepared to go. Her life was beginning to feel as constricted as it did before she left home, and until this moment, she hadn't let herself own that. Her war protests and helping draft dodgers here where she now lived seemed piddling compared to what men like this had gone through, but more importantly, where it had taken him.
When she finished with the free weights, she went to work on the cable machine. He had finished his workout and was leaning against the wall watching her once again.
“If your marriage is such a lie, would you leave it?
“It’s a hard thing when you make a vow to someone. I don’t take that lightly."
“Who are you kidding? I’m disturbing you in a way that has you interested, am I not?”
Again she remained silent.
He continued. “I admit I have an advantage you don’t. My choice forced me to take responsibility for my life from that point forward. What I saw, what I've had to do, who I saw myself as, that was a wake-up call. If you ever want to free yourself from the life you inherited, you have to quit lying. Now I have to find out which parts were the lies. But when you lead a life like yours, it is possible to lie to the bitter end.”
She suddenly felt like a trapped animal, like the world was closing in around her. She had no idea if she had sufficient will to fight it back. He was right, without bombs going off and shots being fired, a person could pretend for a long time, maybe forever.
She blurted out, as if he were privy to her thoughts, “What are we pretending to be? Why are we doing that?”
He sat back down on the bench, hands clasped and hanging loosely between his knees. At her question, he dropped his head and shook it side-to-side softly. A sigh escaped him she could hear across the room.
In a voice she could almost not hear, he said, “That’s what I want to know.” And quieter still, “…have to know.”
The room remained tomb-like in its silence.
She was on the edge of tears.
“I’m going to Greece. That’s my plan. I was there years ago. I knew acceptance there and love and honesty. The people I met took me in as family. Maybe they will again. But I have got to figure this life of mine out or there’s no point. If there is one thing war does, it makes you quit lying to yourself. Whether you have the guts to know the truth, however, that’s another thing.” He stood up again, restless, perhaps engaging this far with another person the first real risk he’d taken since he’d come back.
He continued, “You attract me like I attract you. You are lovely to look at and you have a spark. So - you want to come with me?”
Her heart leapt involuntarily. She stared straight at him, her face intent but otherwise unreadable. He waited. He folded his arms across his chest and bent one leg back to place his foot on the wall. His stillness amazed her.
She wanted a life free and clear like he wanted, she was sure of it. She held his stare for as long as she could, but then dropped her eyes to the floor.
He knew it was not going to happen, and he was almost out of time. He picked up his towel, shook his head quickly as if to clear it and walked out soundlessly.
In another time, he would have reached out to her, given her some room, but he was too muddled now. How could she live where he did? She hadn't done the things he’d done.
When he left, she sat back down on a bench. The room felt vacuous, as if the energy of that moment followed him Pied Piper-like out of the room. He was going to right himself or die trying, but what had she garnered from the choices she’d made—her antiwar stance and the toll it had taken on her life? She had been merely coasting even though she knew something was wrong.
It took her several more years, plus marital abuse before she left her husband. Not going to war had taken its toll on him as well. She didn't have Greece to head toward, only a small room in an old boarding house and the spark that fierce young man had seen in her years earlier. He had never said his name. He was too cautious for that. But she chose to believe that if she aimed her thoughts at him, imagined him in her mind, which she had always been able to do so clearly, he would know she had finally begun. She opened her window letting Canadian winter flood the room, sharpening her senses. She looked toward the moon and said softly, “Would that we had met now. I think I too would have loved Greece.”