The prompt was:
The moment that changes everything.
Another day. It was just another bleak, rainy day. It wasn’t one of those soft, nourishing, spring showers. It was cold and windy, and the clouds cast a constant shadow that no amount of greenery could brighten. I was growing sick of those days, but what could I do? Almost a full month had gone by without sunlight, or so it seemed, and the world–my world–was suffering. Water was building up in the ditches and creeks, overflowing onto the neglected suburban roads and eroding them into further disrepair. The thought had crossed my mind at least twice that the rain was building up in my soul as well, sweeping me away in a current of chilling despair that I couldn’t fight; one day I would surely drown. A terrible thought, I know. But you never really knew me. And thank goodness for that. You would have silently walked away just as everyone else did, with that sympathetic look that they always got in their eyes.
Dragging myself out of bed was getting harder each day. That particular day was no different than any other. Breakfast consisted of cold pizza and coffee–don’t judge me–and I made a second cup for the dangerous drive to work. Every time I felt the tires slip on the wet asphalt I wondered if this would be the day that I would skid off the road. Perhaps I would overcorrect, hit the ditch at an angle, and flip my car end over end, crashing into a tree hard enough that the first on the scene would declare me dead on impact. My safe arrival at work stole that fantasy away from me.
I dreaded the short walk into the building. I knew exactly what I would find inside. Misery, hate, disassociation, and an overwhelming lack of concentration. But as I said, it was just another day. Another twelve hours forced to study nuclear physics and thermodynamics. Another shift sitting at a computer with a stack of binders and reference material. Another waste of time and effort on a mind that refused to retain information regardless of what method of study I chose. My uniform was soaked by the time I made it inside, and I flashed my badge to get past the security checkpoint. I slowed as I went by the sandwich shop on my way to the stairs, wishing I could run inside and hide. I could spend the day watching game shows on the single television that was suspended from the ceiling in the corner of the room. No one would miss me unless I had to go on watch, and I wasn’t on the schedule until the following week. Master Chief would notice though, and I didn’t want to have to explain to him exactly how I felt.
And how did I feel? It took me weeks of therapy to sum it up, but in the end I think the two words I used were tired and worthless. On that day, those feelings had expanded into their full capacity and every ounce was weighing heavily on my heart. I trudged up the two flights of stairs, tripping on the last step–naturally, the one step that another human being was present to witness–and muttering curses under my breath the entire length of the hallway. I entered the room I had become intimately familiar with those past six months. Rows of cubicles and computers filled the open space of the room, most of them occupied by studious sailors–electricians, mechanics, and technicians in training. The walls were lined with individual meeting rooms, easily viewable to any onlookers through large sheets of plexiglass. The smaller rooms were the frightening ones, the anxiety-inducing ones, and the ones of which I was the most afraid.
I sunk down into my usual chair in front of my usual old computer. The screen was dimly lit and frosted with a layer of dust, clinging to the glass with static that sent a series of small shocks through my hand when I tried to wipe it clean. I selected the schematic of the main steam generator and stared at the glowing image with hatred and loathing. I had no interest in this subject, I was terrible with mechanical devices, and my brain had decided it no longer cared to participate. I spent the first eight hours of the day doing what I always did: studying the materials and equipment that went into the construction of the system; studying the water flow, pressure, speed, and temperature; memorizing every line, name, and value across the entire system; and asking myself every question that the first and second class petty officers could possibly throw at me in qualifications.
I signed my name on the front page of a clipboard that hung beside a door to a small meeting room. I patiently waited to be called inside, where I was asked questions on everything I had just learned. It was becoming increasingly common for me to draw a blank in the interview. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember a single thing. Threes and sixes were switching places in my head, metals used to build older models were coming to the front of my mind when asked what the new models were made from, and when asked to draw the schematic from memory–don’t even ask how that went. It was brutally embarrassing, to say the least.
Lunch break came and went. It was the only hour of my pitiful day that I felt like I might survive the rest of my schooling. The little sandwich shop was the only option in terms of food unless I would have brought my own, which surprisingly was one of the few things that didn’t break my spirit further. I looked forward to the variety of deli meats and cheeses, and the potential combinations of fresh toppings and warm, toasted breads. I sought comfort in those sandwiches and found relief in the accompanying cookies and sweet tea. You probably noticed by the tight fabric of my slacks and the tension on the poor, laboring buttons of my blue collared shirt that food was a very dear friend of mine. I am not proud of who I once was, but please understand, back then I had lost the ability to care.
My early evenings were spent on the training submarine, in the section that had been gutted and repurposed as an on-board study hall. The scents of metal and oil and paint all combined into an odor to which I had grown accustomed. I disliked it back then, but the aroma is nearly identical to the smell of transformer oil that my husband carries with him when he gets home from work, so it now has a much more pleasant memory associated with it.
My time on the submarine was not pleasant, however. Depending on the day, I was passed between cubicles and handed a book. I was told to study and that if I should think of any questions, I had only to ask. No one thought I could do it, though. Not a single one of the teachers–chiefs and petty officers–believed I would actually pass my qualifications. I was the girl who couldn’t learn. The girl who wouldn’t try–so they called me. They thought I didn’t hear them. I’m sure you heard of me at some point, even if you didn’t know I was the one they were talking about. They would whisper their sympathies and their doubts, their insults and their jokes. That’s all I was to them. Over time, that’s all I was to anyone, even myself.
That day, I had given up. I wasn’t even looking at the book in front of me, and my binder was untouched. It was Friday Field Day, which meant that everyone else in my class would be on the submarine as well, with sponges and dust rags, cleaning the boat. No one was paying any attention to me, so I was free to lose myself in my thoughts. What dark, frightening things those were.
I’d like to interject, because you didn’t know all this before. Don’t worry. I was never suicidal. I know how it sounds, but I was never in any real danger. I was self-destructive and self-deprecating, but not once did I want it to end. On the contrary, I wanted to live very, very much. I had a theory–and maybe I still do–that the emotion you feel when you die will stay with you in death. I didn’t want to spend eternity depressed and dark. I didn’t know if it really worked that way; how could anyone really know? But I feared it all the same. Besides, I would never experience those delicious sandwiches again if I was dead.
Although I may not have had a death sentence, I did have a streak of masochism. I felt that I had somehow deserved every ounce of negative energy I received. Moreover, I felt that I hadn’t received enough. I was boring, I was unable to retain what I knew was simple nuclear science, I was gaining weight, I never had freedom… wasn’t that what I was there for? Freedom? I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself amidst all the books and qualifications. I only had time to hate myself for not being a better, smarter person.
My arm was itching. I remember that clearly. Just up from my wrist, two inches away from a birthmark that resembles a star. I scratched and scratched; absentmindedly at first, then more aware as the annoying feeling refused to be satisfied. I got frustrated, and in a moment of anger, flipped my diamond wedding ring around to the inside of my hand and dug it into my arm. Scratching, scratching, scratching. The ring was red before the itch began to subside, but I was no longer focused on the pain. All I could think about were my own shortcomings and how much of a failure I had become. I was suddenly filled with these fiery emotions and hateful thoughts. Still scratching; always scratching.
Then there was you.
“Hey,” you said. You were so casual. I spun around in my chair, nearly colliding with you as you walked up behind me. You smiled, and something changed. Maybe it was the sparkle in your eyes. Maybe it was the friendliness of your tone. Maybe it was just that beautiful, open, honest grin. Whatever it was, I realized in that moment just what I had done, and I was ashamed.
I forced my hand away from my arm, realizing that I must have looked insane feverishly tearing my skin apart with a trinket that represented unending love. I wrapped a nearby chem-wipe around the wound, stemming the flow of life in its attempt to jump ship off my sinking, damaged soul.
“Hi,” I blurted. I wasn’t sure what else to say–could you tell I was lost?
“Oh, wow–are you alright? You’re bleeding.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. It was an accident. Just a scratch really.” I laughed, a jumble of nerves and panic wrapped in a smile. It wasn’t funny at all, but that was my natural reaction to awkward situations. I was amazed at how comfortable the short silences were, despite my graceless shifting and bumbling. I am grateful to this day for how calm and friendly you were.
“Let me help you.” You folded a new chem-wipe and grabbed some tape, and wrapped my arm temporarily, well enough to get me to medical where they could use the proper bandaging. I thanked you for your assistance but I didn’t stand up. Instead, I averted my eyes and slowly kicked my foot beneath my chair. I was waiting for you to leave, because I would have rather appeared as an independent woman with a scar than a helpless girl on a walk of shame.
We sat there in silence. I finally raised my eyes to meet yours, and I was astounded by what I found there. You were still smiling, and it shone all the way through your bright, blue eyes. I didn’t see the shades of condescension or perceived inadequacy that everyone else saw me through. I didn’t see the pity or sympathy that I always got. I saw understanding. I saw acceptance. I saw a friend.
I saw hope.
You never judged me. You never told me I was wrong, or what I should have been doing. You never complained or acted superior. I think you were there to remind me that decent human beings existed in the world, and that life goes on outside the perimeter of the nuclear base. I saw life in your eyes. It was a remembrance of a time when I used to smile–and mean it.
You put a hand on my shoulder and told me everything would be fine. You told me not to worry. Do you remember that? It’s okay if you don’t. I don’t expect you to remember everyone who received your kindness and attention.
When you lowered your arm, I finally looked at your sleeve. First class petty officer, two ranks above me. And yet here you were, treating me like an equal. Smiling and reaching out a hand like an old friend. Do you ever cease to amaze?
It might not have seemed like much to you, but I want you to know that it meant the world to me. I was suffering. I was broken and falling. That day, I reached a peak in my depression and hit rock bottom. I don’t know how much farther I would have taken it or the toll it would have had on my body. I don’t know how many other self-inflicted statements I would have made or how deep they would have gone. I don’t know how much blood I would have lost in my quest to feel anything other than self-hatred and worthlessness.
It wasn’t love at first sight; I was already married. It wasn’t best friends forever; I didn’t know what friendship meant. It wasn’t the push I needed to try harder and overcome my mental block; I was still discharged for an emotional instability. It was an angel saving the damned from a living hell. I don’t even know your name, I’m not sure I ever looked at the front of your shirt to find out. All I know is that you were my angel.
I’ve heard people say that it’s good practice to smile at strangers, because you never know if it’s the one thing that pulls them back from the edge. I can now officially attest to that claim; it’s true. One hundred percent. Your smile and moment of kindness saved me from a darker path. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if you ever read this… Thank you. I will always be grateful for my anonymous angel.
I proudly salute you, ET1 Anon.
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