"Thank you for your service." A woman's hand reached out to me as she smiled with a look that did not seem to mirror the gratitude in her words.
It took everything in me not to shudder. Instead, I gave her a terse nod and gripped her hand. "Thank you for your support." My mouth spoke the words automatically, but I tried to convey some warmth in them. It's the expected response, after all, and I am quite good at doing what is expected of me.
Would I miss the recognition when I no longer wore the uniform? I certainly wouldn't miss being stopped by strangers to be thanked for a job I was paid to do. It was always awkward. Along the sidewalk were lines of boots adorned with flags or trinkets. Some of them had photos accompanying the neatly tied boots. I paused, studying the photo balanced against the tops of a tan pair. It was one of the boot camp pictures, with the dress uniform, two ribbons, and the grim yet proud expression that was mainly the result of sleep deprivation. My throat closed up, and I turned away.
It could have been my boots there. I looked down at them, mostly black with a couple of scuffs from earlier in the day. We're conditioned to unify, to mold into the pack, to sacrifice. Is that what they mean by service? We all swore to defend the Constitution, but did those kids know what that might mean? Hell, did I know?
For me, it was three squares, a paycheck, and, if I survived long enough, maybe some education. I guess I knew on some level that it might mean my life, but that was already at risk where I was, so at least I'd have died with a full stomach instead. But living is almost worse because now we can see the danger and know we're not immune to it. That invincible feeling is stripped away, leaving paranoia in its place.
I shook my head, trying to clear it from the despair threatening to grab me. It worked for the moment, and I moved on down the lane. Occasionally, a pair of boots would catch my attention, but I didn't dare let myself dwell on it for long. I looked past the line of memorials to the grassy expanse where a bench faced a two-tier fountain. Around the same time, my leg started itching in the usual way, so I headed over to the bench for a rest.
It was peaceful, far enough away from the memorial proceedings to let me ignore the crowd for a while but still close enough where I wouldn't be reprimanded for not showing up. I settled on the shady bench, ignoring the pops and creaks from my protesting body. The water made tiny splashes as it dripped from the upper tier into the lower one. Sunlight glinted on the faces of coins that had been tossed in for wishes.
What if it was as easy as that? Toss in a penny, make a wish, and watch the world change. I mused on that for a while as I watched the crystal clear water continue to drop into the pool below. My leg started itching again, and I reached down to rub it. It wasn't until my fingers brushed against the plastic that I remembered. It was like that sometimes.
Heat filled my face in embarrassment as I furtively glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. An elderly couple strolling by gave me a sympathetic look, and I ducked my head to hide my reaction. Tears started to prick behind my eyes. I kept my head down, blinking furiously. Self-hatred and humiliation battled for my attention as I struggled to keep from melting down in the middle of the park. It probably would have been forgiven, being a memorial and all, but I was in uniform, so how would that look?
As if reading my thoughts, a voice said, "You're not weak."I didn't look up. The speaker, male from the sound of the voice, sat on the bench on my right side.
A clattering sound startled me, and I tensed involuntarily. My cane had fallen to the ground. I stole a look at the man, expecting to see him laugh or at least grin, but he wasn't even looking at me. He leaned over and heaved a sigh as he bent to pick up my cane. The man was balding and had more than a little extra weight around the middle. His dark skin was wrinkled around his eyes and mouth.
He regarded me, but I saw no sympathy in his eyes. "This," he said, raising one hand to his chest to where his heart would be, "makes you no more weak than your leg. No less, either." I grunted and looked away.
"There's a lot of people who'd disagree," I finally muttered after a long pause.
"Mhm," the man agreed. "The ones who don't know the difference between weakness and vulnerability. Between vulnerability and shame. Between shame and guilt." He clapped his nearest hand on my shoulder. "Enough people put us down that we don't need to do the job for them." From the corner of my eye, I could see him move the hand to the bench. He groaned as he stood up.
He offered me his left hand to shake, and I stared at it for a moment, puzzled. Then I looked up to see a partly empty sleeve where his right hand would have been. I shook his hand as he said, "Thank you for your service."
"Thank you for yours," I replied. It didn't feel like enough. "Thank you," I repeated.
The man nodded and turned away. He did not stoop with age, but he walked with purpose, shoulders relaxed and his head held high. I could see the man he had been while young, but it seemed to me the man he had become was stronger.