The blood pumped in my ears. The skin around my eyes and mouth felt tight. My chest tightened as I thought about working for rent money while learning another European language and keeping up with papers and over 1,500 pages of weekly reading—and how I was going to do it all. I felt like I’d just stepped off a spinning ride at a carnival. When the weight started to crush my chest, I began to sob, my tears plunking onto the laptop keys. My wife, Ashley, heard me and darted out of our bedroom. We’d been together for four years and married a couple of months, and she had seen me cry on only one other occasion. She bear-hugged me from behind. Her chest smashed up against my shoulder blades; her chin dug into the space between my neck and shoulder. “Match my breathing,” she said as she pulled my body even closer to her own. “Breathe like I breathe.”
By the time Ashley and I received the wedding invitation from my high school friend Brett, I was feeling much more confident that I’d survive graduate school. Brett would be deploying to Afghanistan a week and a half after the wedding, the invitation said. It took me as a surprise we’d been invited. Brett and I had seen each other only a handful of times—usually when he was home on leave between deployments—since he’d left for boot camp a couple of weeks before I left for college. Each time, it felt like we’d drifted further and further apart.
During Brett and Whitney’s wedding reception, in between the “Chicken Dance” and “Cotton Eye Joe,” I found Brett leaning against a post in the corner of the reception area. He asked me about graduate school as he scanned the dancing crowd. I didn’t tell him about my panic attacks. He locked eyes with me for a moment after I asked about Afghanistan. He looked down at the Solo cup of beer he’d been sipping; it seemed like he was sick of people asking him. After a moment, he told me he’d gotten hooked up with a great gig. Probably wouldn’t see much action, he said. I smiled and nodded, unsure how to respond without making an ass of myself.
Back at graduate school, after Brett had deployed, I got into the habit of watching the local news while Ashley made dinner. Sometimes there’d be a short segment about a Marine who’d just been killed by an IED in southern Afghanistan, and I would wonder about Brett, comparing his hardships to my own. I hated myself for thinking what I was going through at school was so difficult.
When we were both still in high school, Brett and I had planned to enlist together, but my father talked me out of it. When I was in college, I had planned instead to enroll in the ROTC, but Ashley talked me out of that. Sitting on the couch in my apartment, trying to imagine what Brett was going through, the shame I felt about not having enlisted with him usually morphed into an anxious fear that if Brett made it home alive, and if I finished graduate school, he and I would no longer have anything in common—nothing to keep us connected.
About 15 months after Brett and Whitney’s wedding, Ashley and I were living in Washington, D.C., expecting our first child. I had finished my master’s program the year Brett was in Afghanistan, and he and I hadn’t seen each other since he’d left for that deployment. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom just after midnight one evening in February, unable to sleep, I flipped open my laptop and logged on to Facebook. Brett was logged on too, so I sent him a message and asked how he was doing. He began typing. “Not that good, man,” he wrote. “I think I’m kinda fucked up.”
A wave of panic built in my stomach. Don’t write anything stupid, I thought. I took a deep breath. Seconds passed. It felt like forever. His typing bubble popped up again. He was really struggling, he wrote. He had frequent panic attacks. He couldn’t shake whatever was going on. He was drinking too much and missed being with his guys. Whitney, he said, didn’t get it.
For the next couple of weeks, Brett and I talked on the phone almost daily. I was worried about him. Talking seemed to help, but it was hard to make the time, and there were topics I was curious about that I felt too nervous to ask him about. We started emailing regularly instead. Brett told me about the battle for Marjah, and I had to admit I’d never heard of Marjah. I could tell my ignorance was hard for him to understand. I headed to the library. I started reading about Iraq, too, and about the tumultuous homecomings veterans were experiencing. Whenever I had a question about something I was reading, I’d shoot an email to Brett.
Halfway through June that year, I flew back home to Wisconsin and told Brett I’d stop in to see him while I was around. The night we met for beers at a restaurant near his home, he wore a dark T-shirt, jeans, and a white baseball cap with a curved brim, which he’d pulled down low over his eyes. His hair was cropped close to his head, a stark contrast to the scraggly black beard that covered his rough and angular chin. His eyes were puffy and tired, and even after he settled into his seat at the table, his shoulders stayed pulled up, almost to his ears.
Just like that night on Facebook, we didn’t waste time with small talk. He tried not to think too much about Afghanistan, he said, but most of the time he couldn’t help it. Memories of his convoy being attacked and the distressed cries that rose from the mound of mangled bodies in the back of the armored vehicle would play in his mind. While he talked, he mostly looked at the tall can of Miller Lite he was almost strangling with his calloused hands. Occasionally he’d whip his head around to check what was going on behind him.
In the middle of detailing the worst days of his life, Brett would occasionally look up at me to see how I was reacting. I made a point not to look away. Even though our lives had diverged after high school, Brett was still my friend. I needed him to know that, but I struggled to find the right words. Instead, whenever he looked at me, I locked eyes with him, surrendering to the indescribable telepathy that had taken hold of us. I needed him to know that there was nothing he could say to make me think less of him.
I didn’t bear-hug Brett that night at the restaurant, or ask him to breathe like I was breathing, but in my own way, by listening to him, without trying to fix anything, I’ve hoped he felt as much relief as I had when Ashley had reminded me back in grad school that I wasn’t alone.