CAMERON. We sat at a table in the quiet corner of the restaurant. The place was casual enough that we could swing by after the gym, but Maya had still spent extra time getting ready before we left. I’m not sure how she managed it, but her makeup was fresh, and her jewelry sparkled in the dim light of the restaurant. She was sexy as hell in an all-black ensemble, a scoop neck sweater that showed her cleavage and snug jeans that were driving me crazy the whole walk here. I wanted to think she’d dressed up for my sake, but I couldn’t be sure.
I tried to reprogram my thoughts every time they wandered. I had to keep my head straight. We were still a long way from where I wanted to be in terms of getting to know each other. That’s what this week was about.
“Tell me how you ended up working on Wall Street.” I still had a hard time imagining her crunching numbers for corporate America.
“The company recruits right from the college, so it seemed like a good opportunity to make some money, pay off loans and what not.”
“What’s your day like?”
She shrugged, a wordless answer. “What made you decide to start the gym?” she asked.
“You know, I wasn’t really interested in taking over the family business.” In all our dreaming about the future, no one had known better than Maya my desire to break away from my parents’ expectations. Degrees and suits and plans for the future that always involved some kind of bullshit ladder. She’d been hurt most by my joining the military, yet she’d supported it because it meant taking control of my future.
She nodded. “I remember. Did they help you?”
“No, I got the funds from investors. Somehow I managed to do it all on my own, which frustrates the hell out of them.”
“I’m proud of you.” Her eyes softened with a warm smile.
“Why a gym?”
“There’s not a lot to do in the desert, so I got pretty good at working out. Not exactly a page-turner as far as stories go.”
That earned a small smile. “How long were you over there?”
I did a quick tally in my head. “The better part of three years over a handful of deployments.”
The sparkle of interest in her eyes dulled with a new emotion. “That’s terrible.”
“It’s fine. I volunteered for them. Swapped with a few guys with babies on the way, otherwise I probably could have gotten away with one or two.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you volunteer to go over there?”
I thought back to that life—a life that could not be more different from the one I was currently living. Peace, sometimes quiet, and safety were simple luxuries that I often took for granted now. At the time it all made sense, but lately I wondered how I’d managed it. Now that I was on the other side, the only answer I could come up with was that I was a glutton for pain, that I needed to experience something as intense and disturbing as war to put the war in my heart into perspective.
“I don’t know,” I lied.
“Were you scared?”
“It was stressful. I mean, I definitely saw things that I’ll never forget. But after awhile, you get used to it. There aren’t any bills or…I don’t know…superficial bullshit, like which store in the mall to shop for Christmas gifts. It’s simpler in a lot of ways. I think that was what kept me there, kept me going back. Every day being the same, like some sort of self-imposed purgatory.”
I ran my thumb along the clothed edge of the table. Did she know that I’d served my time in the outskirts of hell because of her? That sometimes I’d wished for danger with a blind courage, trying to cure the dying place in my heart where she’d once been.
“There were times when I’d been there for so long, I could convince myself that time was actually standing still. Every day looked the same as the last, with so many days still ahead of me.”
“Yet you kept going back.”
I nodded. “That’s what I thought I needed.”
She worried her lip gently. “And then you left.”
“When the time was right, I did. I finished up the last tour and came back ready to start over.”
We were quiet for a long time. The stab of a few particularly heinous memories flashed through my mind—visions that my brain wouldn’t forget. I pushed them away, focusing instead on the beautiful woman in front of me.
“So what made you change your mind and get out?” she asked quietly.
“My family was understandably worried. They’d email me every other day asking if I was close to what was happening on the news. They just wanted to make sure I was still alive. I could have stayed in longer, but I didn’t want to put them through that anymore.”