“I haven’t seen you in a while, Andrés. How have you been?”
My hands go clammy as I give the military doctor a blank stare. Why did I think it would be a good idea to come here? Oh, yeah, closure. That’s what I kept telling myself on the drive to the VA hospital. I wanted to let Doctor Barnes know I don’t need to see him anymore.
Because I don’t. I’m better now.
I wipe my hands on my jeans, trying to get rid of the excess moisture. It must be hot in here. I have no reason to sweat. No reason at all.
“I figured as much.” He crosses one leg over his knee, looking casual as he leans back against the upholstered leather chair, but there’s still that expectant look in his eyes. Despite the glare on the doctor’s glasses, I can see the man’s impatience. “How else have you been?”
This shrink is never one to waste time. He’s not afraid to pressure me to get to the point, which is one reason I have always liked him.
I sip from my water bottle, clear my throat, and then answer. “I haven’t had a bad dream in months.”
After the roadside bomb had flipped our truck and killed my best friend in Afghanistan, I couldn’t escape the nightmares that plagued me. Although the occurrence of those dreams slowed after I met Christina, they completely stopped three months ago, after my best friend’s wife, Letty, contacted me on Facebook. She’d written me a long letter apologizing for blaming me for James’s death. She’d even invited me to San Antonio for her youngest son’s birthday party. It seems I just needed Letty’s forgiveness for the nightmares to stop.
“That’s great news.” The doctor smiles wider this time.
I can tell this smile is genuine, and I release a pent-up breath of air.
Then the doctor hits me with the next question. “Are you adjusting to life as a civilian?”
“Oh, yeah.” I nod before sticking one clammy hand in my pants pocket. The little velvet pouch is still there, and though it takes up no more room than a wadded-up tissue, it feels heavy. The weight of it presses into my thigh. What’s worse is, the strain is somehow tethered to an invisible noose that is wrapped around my neck. Each day the pouch feels heavier, and the noose feels tighter, so tight I feel I may suffocate from the pressure. “I’m learning how to take over my uncle’s businesses.” I say the words I rehearsed on the drive over. “Working out and….” I pause and finger the pouch again. “I met a girl.”
I shift in my seat, trying to suppress my arousal as I envision last night in bed, when Christina’s long auburn hair had been fanned around my thighs. I can’t forget the expression in her emerald eyes when she looked up at me, flashing that seductive smile right before she took me in her mouth.
“You sound hesitant to talk about her. Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, never.” I vehemently shake my head before I force myself to stop.
Doctor Barnes has that look in his eyes again. Damn, he’s too smart for his own good. I remind myself I need to find a new shrink, maybe one a little less observant. Maybe one who nods and agrees with everything I say.
I avert my gaze, but I can’t escape the feeling Doctor Barnes can see through me, straight into my soul. But I came here to talk, didn’t I? No. I came here to tell the doctor I no longer need him, as soon as I get help with this one little problem.
I look the doctor in the eyes, take a shaky breath, and slowly exhale, even though the invisible noose is making it harder to breathe. “Ever since we moved in together, my family has been pressuring us to get married.”
He gives me a pointed look. “How do you feel about marriage?”
I answer without hesitation. “I love her. I’ll do anything to marry her. I even had a ring made, but I don’t think I have the nerve to pop the question.”
I shouldn’t have asked Tia for my grandmother’s ring. That was a bad idea. A very bad idea. We’ve only been together six months, and I’ll scare her off. Then I remember Tia wagging a finger in my face and clucking her tongue, telling me the church frowns on sex out of wedlock.
I don’t want to offend God, but I don’t want to lose Christina, either. Her parents were unloving and abusive. How can she possibly be ready for marriage and family after what she’s been through?
Slowly, I pull the velvet pouch out of my pocket, loosen the drawstring, and dump the ring in my palm. I hold the shining silver band beneath the soft glow of the overhead lights.
“The emeralds came from my grandmother’s wedding band,” I say to the doctor as I press the ring between the tips of my fingers. “They’re the same color as Christina’s eyes.”
“You said you don’t have the nerve to ask her,” he asks in an annoyingly impartial monotone. “Why?”
“It’s just….” I swallow against the tightening knot around my throat as I place the ring back in the pouch. “I’m afraid she won’t say yes.”