"The women have to be the ones to adapt. That's the way it is for all of us," Saskia said as her friend nodded, and now she is beginning another day of trying to do just that as the neighbor's dogs howl and Adam climbs into the passenger seat. For whatever reason, her irritation keeps growing, and the fact that she realizes it and can't stop it makes it worse. She drives a few blocks and abruptly pulls into a convenience store.
"Need gas?" Adam asks.
"Unless you want to push," she says.
"Need anything from inside?"
She doesn't answer.
"Doughnut?" he asks.
He fills the car and goes inside to pay, and when he comes out he's holding a Mountain Dew and a handful of lottery tickets.
"Are you kidding me?" she says as he starts scratching off the first of the tickets. She hates that he wastes money on lottery tickets, much less on Mountain Dew. "Keep dreaming," she says as he tries the second one. She drives through town and follows a minivan onto a ramp to the interstate. "Why are they braking? Why are they braking? WHY ARE THEY BRAKING?" she yells.
She hits the gas and flies around an old woman, alone at the wheel, as Adam tries the third one.
"Last night, I passed by that bridge by Walmart, and there was a bum sitting under it surrounded by a huge pile of scratch-off tickets," he tells her. "Somebody gave him some money, I guess, and he used it to buy scratch-offs."
"That would be you," she says.
He tries the fourth one as she accelerates to eighty. They are on their way to the VA hospital in Topeka, sixty miles to the east, for a doctor's appointment. The war left him with PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus, and mild traumatic brain injury, the result of a mortar round that dropped without warning out of a blue sky and exploded close enough to momentarily knock him silly. Between his government disability check of eight hundred dollars a month and his $36,000-a-year salary from a job he managed to find, he is pulling in about two thirds of what he made in the army, which is why Saskia hates when he wastes money on lottery tickets.
He tries the fifth one and announces, "I won ten bucks."
Saskia looks at him. "You spent five," she says. "You made five. What are you going to do with five?"
"Buy a pack of cigarettes."
She hates that he smokes. She hates that he wants to be alone so much now, either fishing or hunting or out on the front porch having a cigarette in the dark. She hates that her patience didn't turn out to be bottomless after all. A truck swerves in front of her. "You asshole," she shouts.
It has been eight years since they met. This was in Minot, North Dakota. She was just out of high school, a girl who never missed curfew and was now on her own in a cheap basement apartment, and one day she emerged from the basement to the sight of a local boy with a rough reputation sitting in the sun without a shirt. What Adam saw was a girl staring at him whose beauty seemed a counterpoint to everything in his life so far, and that was that, for both of them. Soon came marriage and his SASKIA tattoo, and now here they are, her hitting the gas again and him reaching over to tickle her, break the tension, make her laugh. She flinches, as if his fingers have blades on them, and she accelerates until she's only a few feet from another slow-moving car. "Get out of the way!" He moves his hand to the back of her head and caresses it, and this calms her enough to slow down to seventy-eight.
* * *
Sometimes after they fight, she counts his pills to make sure he hasn't swallowed too many and checks on the guns to make sure they're all there. The thought that he might not recover, that this is how it will be, makes her sick with dread sometimes, and the thought that he might kill himself leaves her feeling like her insides are being twisted until she can't breathe.
Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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