I keep a photograph of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. In it she is wearing a white satin dress – crisp and new as an overnight snowfall greeted at dawn. It is sleeveless and frames her youthful shoulders which are bronzed with the healthy glow of the long summer days of the west. Her eye shadow is an effervescent green, barely noticeable on the lids of eyes betraying joy and absolute trust. The woman’s smile is contagious, the mouth partly open in a captured moment of innocent newlywed laughter. Her stick straight brown hair, usually blossoming with curls, has been persuaded into a half up do, the pins also holding delicately placed daisies – the flowers of children and teenage girls, he loves me, he loves me not.
I keep this picture in a flowery box along with a catalogue of other memories captured by Kodak. They are not organized by any system known to man – I find the ones I want by memory – by feel. I reach down just so – to level such and such and she is there. Her hopes expressed by the cutting of the cake which has been decorated lavishly with professionally stylized icing and fresh red roses. Her dreams are realized in this moment – this one will not break her heart. He has promised as much just 15 minutes earlier in a ceremony performed in the aptly named wedding pasture, the backdrop is a setting sun and pink rays slide blissfully behind the Teton mountain range.
There was no honeymoon for this most beautiful of women. The promise maker is on shore leave from an 11 month stint with the army. He must return quickly, if he saves his shore leave he can come home early.
Two weeks later she receives a message. That smile fades from her lips, her eyes betray shock and distrust – there is no Kodak memory of this moment, only the mind’s eye remembers. The message was destroyed in a moment of denial after much reading, tears, and re-reading. Her friends were shown the words. They cannot believe them either and they express the outrage she cannot yet bring herself to feel.
“What is this?!” they ask and then demand. He has written the most hurtful words she has experienced in her 27 years.
I wish you were dead. You are nothing but a gold-digging whore.
A snippet of his deep seeded beliefs or the ravings of a drunken soldier trying to drown the pain of loneliness away – she does not know, she does not want to know. He has accused her of cheating before – unjustly – but his behavior was excused. He was far from home and lonely and soldiers talk. They increase their bravado with stories of sexual conquests.
“Of course the women at home must be doing the same thing, it’s only natural,” they tell themselves and each other.
Her now sad eyes and dejected spirit roam the skyline of timeless mountains. He loves me not. The daisies had lied. Her best friend had warned her.
“There are two kinds of soldiers, the ones who break it off the night before they leave because they cannot commit to coming home, they know it’s a promise they might not keep, and the ones who propose marriage within days of departure so they have something to fight for. Either way they are soldiers, trained to be emotionally reserved – they must be – or it could cost them their life.”
Her soldier had fallen into the latter category and soon after into drunken rants, but this does not dissuade her from her decision. It is as lacking in emotion as her trained warrior is, she tells herself, enough is enough. Wars fought in the name of freedom shouldn’t destroy families, futures … love … This becomes her cause, her battle, one she is determined to win.
Months later she is pulling out of a gas station in Michigan headed west to the sunshine and a vast but beautiful hole, one she hopes is big enough to dump the pain of a broken heart into and fill her with the peace of a thousand perfect sunsets.
There had been phone calls to check on the soldier which precipitated accusations of a destroyed career, then phone calls to friends begging them to tell her how sorry he was, an acquiescence to tentative forgiveness, and then the night of drunken wanderings through the streets of their small town. She had come home to the death card placed strategically on her desk. He refused to answer his phone. She tracked him from bar to bar and eventually called the police for help. They found him belligerent on an embankment next to the river but they did not bring him home. The officers assured her it was better if he came home on his own - he never really had.
The pictures in the flowery box have increased to include snapshots of the canyon, the sunsets, and the friends but time spent in gathering them has not healed all wounds. I hope one day to feel my way down to level such and such and find her not just in a box, but in a mirror – I hope to trust again – I hope, most desperately, to love again.