March 15, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Leah Givens
“I killed a baby. I killed a baby.”
It’s always when you clean out a forgotten closet that you find these kinds of stories. I need to move, so the old notebooks have to go.
“I killed a baby.” He said it as we faced each other on the airport waiting room seats. We had never met. Thus began what felt like a very long one-hour flight from Atlanta to Tallahassee.
Seems I scribbled this after a trip to my parents’. I sit up stiffer on the couch, wondering what my own handwriting will reveal. If this story even happened. I suspect it did.
We boarded, sat together: fate’s doing. He wore his torture like an aura. Intermingled with a cloud of alcohol. He had returned from Iraq three days before after a six-month tour. But one experience stood out, and he recounted it again and again as if for the first time. “Uncle Air Force made me shoot her. She was approaching the plane, looked like she was carrying something, and they told me to shoot her.” And again and again, “I’m so ashamed of myself. I hate myself.” Over and over. Later he told me how her skull blew open like a grape. He was—he said, shaking his head—“a good shot.”
I couldn’t have made this up. The next pages in the steno pad are filled with notes on large-bore needles, contraindications to MRI. Must have been the last year of med school; I was hardly writing fiction. Yet I might as well be hearing all this for the first time.
I said what I could, even though he in his drunken state misinterpreted my words and asked to kiss me. I declined, leaning away to reinforce the message. But in most ways he was too far gone to reel in. “They all know what I did, don’t they?” he said, motioning to nearby passengers. “You think I said something bad,” he accused another man.
My sessions of electroconvulsive therapy began around then, I’m guessing. Forgetfulness around the time of ECT is a known side effect. But electric shocks shouldn’t be able to destroy the memory of these moments, their own shock and awful truth. I continue reading.
He was on his way home to visit his folks for the first time after duty. “Merry Christmas, isn’t it?” he said ironically, then asked me to swear not to tell his parents what he did. He’d been drinking it all away. I asked him to get help, and I hoped to God he would. But in sharing his pain, he’d given some of it to me; and I wasn’t angry for that, but saddened.
And now I don’t remember any of it, hard as I try. Did the seizures relieve me of that psychic misery like a permanent alcohol fog? I wonder if Judy Garland sang to the troops, “Forget your troubles, come on get happy.” Did the seizures release me from reality?
I breathe, force my way through the words I wrote years ago:
This is our burden to share; I can’t make it right to shoot a young girl in the head, and I can’t take away the torture in his soul, at least not on a one-hour plane ride. I realize I don’t even know his name, though he showed me his Air Force badge. But I know he is one of us who is hurting.
Now I only hope we both survive.
Leah’s writing has appeared in The Healing Muse, Camroc Press Review and the ethics section of the journal Surgery, among others. She is currently compiling a collection of essays. She received her M.D. from Washington University in St. Louis and worked in medical research. Her photography is also widely published.