He came into the store to buy a pack of gum with five sticks. I told him he should buy a multi-pack--he could save money that way and not have to stand in line so many days, always in my line, at the convenience store on the Army base in Germany.
“I like coming here every day. I’d come if I had nothing to buy, but Snodgrass would probably chase me out.”
I’m sure I gave him a blank stare. He was right; my store manager was in the habit of telling enlisted men to “move on” if they loitered in the store.
“And, by the way, my name is Mack,” he said as he took my hand and held it until I looked in his eyes with more than a hint of curiosity.
“Hi,” I responded, and looked away.
“I’m trying to figure out if your eyes are blue or green.”
My eyes met his and I wasn’t afraid.
He was there the day I tried to hide my bruises, and he wasn’t fooled by the thick make-up. I could see it in his eyes. We weren’t alone, and he didn’t embarrass me by asking, but I knew he knew. I saw the range of his emotions clearly through his brown eyes: first, curiosity, then realization and anger, then something I couldn’t put my finger on at the time.
He was waiting for me when I left work that day. I sized him up as he shifted from one foot to another in the cold. He reminded me of a Roman soldier in a painting I had seen, with his slightly elongated nose and brown, wavy hair. All he needs is a toga and a wreath on his head. I used my imagination until he broke in.
“I’d like to walk with you, if you don’t mind,” he offered.
“For a little bit, I guess,” I said, looking around to make sure we weren’t being watched. I had learned by then that I shouldn’t let my guard down.
“I--blocked a punch with my face,” I joked, pulling my brown bangs over my black eye.
“Who was throwing punches?”
“My--husband.” Why did I tell him? I had never told anyone, but at that moment I felt like I could float with just a little puff of air.
“Bastard,” he said with a strength I wish I had.
“Where is he now?”
“He’s in the barracks, under house arrest.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know, yet. I’m trying to get out, to go home, but they keep saying it’s the holiday travel season, and there’s just not any room for me to go on a military flight. It looks like I’ll have to wait until after New Year‘s Day.”
“Hope they can hold him that long.”
“Me, too. I can’t sleep at night.”
His eyes seemed so sympathetic and kind, it almost made me cry. I somehow knew that this man would never hurt me. Pity I had not had some discernment about the monster I had married when I was so young.
“Are you hungry? Let’s go to the Rod and Gun Club for something to eat.”
I hesitated, thinking if someone saw us and it got back to A.H., he would kill me, even though we were separated and I told him I was filing for divorce when I got stateside. I knew him, and I knew he still thought of me as his property. That was all I had ever been. I had already decided that I hated men, and I was swearing to a life of celibacy. Standing in the cold, I was afraid to move in one direction or the other. “I don’t know...” I replied, but my answer was weak.
“You’ve got to eat, don’t you? You don’t want to go home and eat alone. It’s bad for the digestion.”
I laughed at him then, and lingered the rest of the evening, laughing and smiling as we ate. My almost constant depression was lifting more than a little.
We spent the next few weeks together, and I had no illusion that this would be anything more than temporary. I had to go home to Florida, and he had about a year left in Germany, then it was Colorado for him. Worlds apart.
He walked home with me when it was nice, and we took a taxi when it was nasty--praying that the next slide the driver took wouldn’t get us down to the valley in one long tumble.
Mack listened to my sad stories, laughed at my jokes, and kissed my tears away. He told me I was beautiful and intelligent. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but it meant everything to me.
I had been married for two years to a woman-eating beast, and the kindest thing he ever called me was stupid. The physical bruises always healed, but the emotional abuse lingered on in my soul.
Mack and I made snow angels and rolled around in it like a pair of kids, and he kept me warm by opening his coat to enfold me. He didn’t try to change me. Most of all, he restored my faith in men.
Our time was cut short when A.H. escaped house arrest and broke into our off-base apartment, looking for me and finding a friend of mine instead. She said he was stone-drunk, ranting and raving about wanting to kill me, and he tried to rape her. She resisted, reported, and had him officially locked up. All things I should have done when he first beat me. So the Army finally decided to get me out of Germany before he carried out his threats against me.
I was notified that I had less than a week to get ready--that I was flying out one week before Christmas. I was relieved and saddened at the same time. I worked my last day and met Mack at the Rod and Gun Club, and he walked me home, down the steep, snow-covered hill into the valley. I savored every moment, not feeling the cold.
“What made you keep coming back for those packs of gum?” I asked him.
He stopped walking and took me in his arms for a long time, then pulled away and held my face in his hands. “I looked into your eyes every day, and there was a lot of sadness there, but I saw something else. I saw that there was still just a little spark left, and I was hooked. I kept wanting to see that. I guess what I mean is--I just wanted to see you happy.”
I cried that night, but mixed in the tears of loss, there were tears of joy, and of hope. I had never known such unselfishness in my life.
There is always the “rest of the story”, and this is mine. Up to that point, I had left A.H. seven times in two years. I believed his promises that he would change--six out of seven times, but the last time I just gave up and went back anyway. My parents were still married, and my dad was abusive. I guess I thought that was normal, and I thought I didn’t necessarily have the right to be happy.
This time I didn’t go back to him, because I had hope. Mack gave that to me. After that I resisted lesser men, and a few years later, I met Bryan.
Bryan and I have been married thirty-five wonderful years so far. We’ve been through hard times, but he still puts a sparkle in my eyes. I know beyond any doubt that he loves me.
Sometimes when I’m standing in a checkout line of a store looking at the packs of gum, I think of Mack, and thank him, wherever he is, for giving me hope.
I still can’t help smiling when I see a pack of gum.