The next three weeks that pass are a haze. I turn off my brain to avoid the burning thoughts of Willem. I am numb. Just going through the motions. Barely sleeping. I don't even falter when there is a small attack. Nothing is harmed, so I just stay in my warm pool of emptiness.
Of course, I put on a facade for the girls so they won't worry. I even go to a pub with them. They all get completely wasted while I stare aimlessly into my cup of water. Besides that one night though, I never leave the tents. I don't want to wander and have my mind turn back on. Just a few more weeks of this and I’ll be completely over Willem, back to normal, and able to be content with my life again.
But of course, life isn't fair and thrives on throwing me curve balls.
Margie approaches me hastily on a Wednesday afternoon. “Anna take your break now.” She grabs my arms and pulls me as I’m reading a patient’s medical record.
I grunt. “I’m kind of a little busy right now. Can you wait, like, ten minutes?”
“No, it needs to be now!”
“Why?” I ask, annoyed.
“Just come!” She finally pulls me away as I release the file with an impatient sigh. “Make it quick,” I snap as we practically run through the infirmary. “What is this about?” I ask as she pulls me out of the tent.
And he is standing there. Leaning against a pole. Rubbing his knuckles. Willem. He straightens up when he sees us. I hold my breath.
“I’ll leave you two to talk.” Marge disappears back into the tent.
We stare at each other. I can't read his glowing eyes. Soon, all of the feelings come tumbling out of the boxes I packed them in. I start to back up with bitterness imprinted on my face, hoping he’ll get the point and leave. But he reaches out to grab me, and I melt in his touch.
“Wait,” his deep Dutch voice says. He takes a step closer and says “Wait” again, but softer. He looks so strong and just... in his uniform. His hair is combed back now, and his face is shaved. I had forgotten how tall he is, my head only reaching his shoulder.
He stares at me for a moment longer while I try to avert my eyes then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper. He holds it up and gives me a smirk. I cross my arms. He clears his throat as he unfolds it, then starts to talk.
“I know we got off... bad?” He reads slowly and looks to me for approval on his sloppy English. I nod and try to bite back my smile. He continues. “I sorry. I... asshole.” He looks at me, his eyes sincere. I look down and release my smile. “We begin over.” Then he holds out his hand. “Hello, I Willem.” He smiles crookedly, showing off his white teeth. He laughs when my face heats up.
I take his hand and nervously say, “Anna,” quietly.
His eyes glow. Instead of releasing my hand, he pulls it to him. He looks back to his piece of paper, reads it to himself, then looks back to me. My breath comes out a little faster.
“Anna,” he starts, “you like me to... take... you on d-d-date?” He says this slowly, making faces as he tries to remember certain words and butchers others.
I snort and cover my mouth. I never imagined I would ever see Willem again, let alone have him apologize and ask me out on a date. And now I’m standing frighteningly close to him, my hand small in his large calloused one, and I’m not even the one embarrassing myself. He took time to write all of this down and try to memorize some of it just for me.
I can feel a fluttering in my heart and all I want to do is smile, yet I still have a nagging thought: I shouldn't do this. Either way, it isn't going to end well. He’s either going to grow tired of me when he realizes I’m not as fun as other girls, or he is going to die. Overall, there is no happy ending for us. So then why did I just say “Okay”?
He looks shocked, as if he didn't expect me to agree so easily. “Yah?” he asks.
“Um... yeah,” I brush hair out of my face.
“Um,” he squints, trying to recall more words, “Friday... uh, seven... pub?” His voice cracks. I nod a little too eagerly. “Okay.” His eyes shine, then he kisses my hand. I put my other hand to my stomach to hold the butterflies in.
He walks backwards and stares at me. “Okay,” he says again. I put my kissed hand to my mouth as he turns around. Then he turns back to me again. He smiles so big, his face could break. “Okay,” he says once more, then continues away.
I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him. Just like every other guy. They’ll always turn their back when a prettier girl shows up.
“Back so soon?” Cat asks, surprised, when she sees me stomp into our barracks. “I thought you'd still be out with Willem.”
I ferociously wipe away the lipstick the girls made me wear for the stupid date. “Willem changed his mind,” I growl.
“Wait, what do you mean he changed his mind? Just slow down, Anna!” Cat tenderly reaches for my arm.
“He was with another girl,” I snap.
Cat doesn't speak for a moment. “Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding,” she finally says .
I shake my head and reply as I back up, “I don’t think so.”
After my shift ended at four, all three of the girls helped me get ready. Shirley loaned me her red dress that was cut a little too low in the front and fit awkwardly on different parts of my body. I didn't complain though, as I didn't have my own nice dress to wear and none of Margie’s or Cat’s dresses would've fit me. Cat did my makeup, covering my face with an inch thick layer of liquid foundation to cover my imperfections. Of course, she didn't say that was the reason for all of the makeup, but I’m sure it was implied. It ended up looking like a clay mask on my face. She finished my look with her signature red lipstick. Margie did my hair, intricately curling and pinning it up, so my hair looked only shoulder length. She said long hair wasn't in style. After those two hours of preparation, they squeezed my feet into painfully tight stilettos and then sent me on my way.
The sun was setting on my walk to the pub, casting a nice orange glow on my surroundings. I contently watched the bicyclists around me, riding peacefully as if there wasn't a war slowly destroying their country. My heart was beating fast and my palms were sweating. The realization of this being my first date hit me in the stomach like a cannonball of iron butterflies. I had gone over half of my life without trusting anyone, and now I was suddenly going out with a Dutch soldier who barely spoke any English? And he’s unbelievably handsome. Why would he bother wasting his time with me? I’d probably embarrass myself on this date. I had no idea how to talk to a man. Sure, I talked to soldiers and doctors every day, but that was all business related. Regular conversation was completely foreign to me.
I was ten minutes early getting to the pub, but I figured that was courteous. The place was filled with Dutch soldiers. I even got a few whistles from some. I usually would just roll my eyes, but being dolled up made me feel less secure, so I blushed instead. Standing in the middle of the large crowd, I careened my neck, trying to find Willem over the tall bodies. My hands wrung with nervousness. And then I finally found him.
I only saw the side of this face, but even that was enough to make my heart skip a little. His jaw was just as sharp and angular as ever and his skin was glowing more than normal. He was in his dress uniform but wasn't wearing his hat. I could tell he had tried to style his hair back, but it was now flopping on his forehead, almost brushing his eyelashes. I swallowed my nervousness and was about to approach him when I noticed him talking to someone. He kept smiling, and then out of nowhere, a girl wrapped her scrawny arms around his neck. She leaned dangerously close to his face, her strawberry red hair brushing his skin. My cheeks flared up. I was completely confused.
Until he swept her up in his arms.
She threw her head back and laughed before snuggling her milky cheek against his strong neck as he carried her out the door.
I didn't waste any time in denial. I didn't waste any time waiting for him to give me an explanation. And I certainly didn't waste any time crying.
I calmly walked out of the pub, but let my anger grow as I made my way back to the infirmary. And now here I am, ripping bobby pins out of my hair and wiping foundation off of my face. The urge to cry is overwhelming, but I tuck the pain away deep inside to a place where it cannot be touched, even by me. I know I have only known him for a short time and what I’m feeling is just infatuation, but I trusted him. And my trust is very rare. I feel like an idiot for giving my trust to a man whom I’ve had barely three conversations with.
Once all of the makeup is off my face, my hair is pulled back in a tight french braid, and I’m back in my nursing uniform, I get back to work. Organizing files numbs me. Checking patients’ vitals calms my racing thoughts. Even cleaning up patient’s bodily fluids is preferable to thinking.
Cat must've told Margie and Shirley about what happened, as they both approach me while I change sheets on empty beds.
“I’m so sorry I encouraged you to go out with that asshole. You didn't deserve this,” Margie says as she runs her hand tenderly along my braid. I give her a small smile, appreciating her comfort and soft demeanor, as always, but look away quickly to avoid her pitiful gaze.
“You let me know if he tries to come around here, and I’ll give him a good beating. No cocky son-of-a-bitch can play our Anna and get away with it,” Shirley chimes in.
“Really guys, I’m fine. I just want to pretend this humiliation never happened and move on.”
Shirley and Margie give each other a look before Shirley replies. “Listen, Anna. We know you have a hard time... opening up to people. We don't know why, but we respect your privacy. It’s not okay that Willem took advantage of that, but it was very brave of you to give your trust a chance. And we hope this experience doesn't prevent you from giving your trust in the future.”
The girls give me one last smile, then leave me be. I’m comforted that they finally are beginning to understand me and have faith in me. But I think I’m going to need more time. Trusting people does not come naturally to me. My parents made sure of that.
I work most of the night and get a few hours of sleep in the morning. I’m back in the infirmary tent by eleven. Around three, I walk outside to take my mid-afternoon lunch/early dinner break. The sun is at the perfect place in the sky where it’s not too bright and perfectly warm. I climb the grassy hill by the infirmary until I’m on the other side and the tent has disappeared. I look for a place to sit, but then I see him. Willem.
And he sees me.
He waves, then starts to jog over. I’m momentarily frozen, unable to think of why I need to hate him. The memory that has been pushed so far back into the attic of my mind finally resurfaces. I turn on my heel and walk as fast as I can up the hill. Willem continually calls my name and I continually ignore him. I’m at the top of the hill, only 50 yards away from my base, but he has caught up to me.
“Anna,” he says out of breath. He points to my ear and shakes his head in confusion. “No hear?” he asks in his thick accent. I ignore him and continue walking hastily. He continues anyway. “At pub. Waited. No you. Why?” I respond by walking faster. “Anna,” he says as he grabs my arm to stop me. I rip myself away and shove him. Hard. So hard, he almost falls.
“I was there,” I hiss calmly to him. “I saw you with that redhead. Listen, Jackass,” I step close to him, close enough to feel his breath on my face as he looks down on me and I look up at him. His face is crinkled in confusion and I know he has no idea what I’m saying, but I don’t care. “You may be used to playing these games, and other girls may be fine with it, but I’m not. I’m not a desperate, attention seeking slut that you think you have power over.” My voice has raised to almost yelling. I become choked up, overwhelmed with emotions that I promised I wouldn’t let myself feel. “How dare you make me feel that I can trust you,” I whisper as my eyes brim with burning tears. He sees this, his own eyes filling with pain, and tries to reach for me. I shove him away again and put on a brave mask. “I don't need this, and I don't need you,” I continue with a level voice now, “So have a nice life.” I run back to the barracks, letting my tears slide down my pasty cheeks. Will doesn't pursue me.
Back on my bed, I stare blankly into space and let more tears out for a couple of minutes. He may have gotten me to cry, but I will not give him the pleasure of a complete meltdown. One benefit of not wearing makeup is never having to worry if it runs when I cry, making my post-cry recovery that much faster.
I’m back in the infirmary as if nothing has even happened. Ten minutes in, as I realize I never got a chance to eat lunch/dinner, Willem comes charging towards me with a reluctant looking Dr. Argyle trailing behind him. You have got to be kidding me. Even if he didn't understand my yelling earlier, you'd think he’d get the hint.
I glare at them as they approach with my arms crossed defensively at my chest. Will’s eyes are ablaze with every emotion. Argyle looks like he’s ready to throw up his hands and declare his resignation. I would be annoyed too if I kept getting pulled into translate people’s drama.
Before I get a word out, Willem is speaking frantically in Dutch, gesturing with his hands and running out of breath. Everyone is staring at us. I try to keep my face blank. When he’s done ranting, he turns to Argyle and motions for him to translate. With a burnt-out sigh, he speaks.
“Will has no idea what’s happening. He says he waited for hours for you at the pub last night and you never showed. Then when he came to inquire your reasoning for blowing him off,” the doctor says sarcastically, “you exploded at him and ran. He’s confused and wants to know why. And he won’t leave without an answer.”
After Argyle is done speaking, I turn to Willem. His eyes are pleading. I turn back to Argyle and say, “Tell him he knows what he did and to get lost.” I begin to walk past as he translates, done with this conversation, but Willem grabs my arm. This time, his grip is tight and demanding and not willing to let go. With his intense green eyes boring into mine, his husky words find their way to my stomach, stirring the metal butterflies that must have not left. I’m mortified that he still has this effect on me.
“He’s pleading. He doesn't know what you’re talking about, truly. He didn't mean to upset you. Just please tell him.” Argyle’s voice is like raisins to Willem’s milk chocolate voice.
I pause and search Will’s eyes. They are so lost, so hurt. I want to believe him, but I have been deceived by just as convincing acts. Finally, I say, “The ginger.” Willem doesn't register the translation. “The redhead? The girl with the red hair? You seriously can't be denying this. I saw you with her.”
With this translation, he finally understands. A second after the realization hits his eyes, he bursts out in roaring laughter. I’m dumbfounded. Argyle and I give each other weary looks. Willem speaks, still laughing. “That’s why you’re mad? Because of Gerta? I thought it was something serious!” Argyle translates in first-person now.
I stare, stunned, again. He’s laughing over being caught with another woman? Is it seriously not a big deal to him? Is it a Dutch thing to have a good laugh over being caught in the act? I shake my head in disbelief and pull away from him, but he quickly grabs my arm again.
“Please Anna, let me explain,” he proceeds while the doctor translates, “I got to the pub early to get us a booth. They usually go fast. Gerta is an old... friend. She was drunk and some guys were trying to take advantage of her. She couldn't even walk. I still care for her, like a sister. I didn't want her getting hurt. I figured I had enough time to get her home before you came. That’s it, I swear. You seriously thought I was with Gerta?” He chuckles, then turns serious. “You seriously thought I would betray your trust like that?” he reaches to hold my other hand. I look down, studying our grasp. I’ve never considered my hands to be pretty, but they actually look tiny and dainty and soft and pale within his hands. His tanned, dry, long-fingered hands. His fingers aren't meaty, but they aren't scrawny, either. They’re strong and scarred and warm and perfect. I’m aware of every part of my clammy hand that is touching his. Every brush is electricity that sears to my stomach and my heart and my knees and my eyelids and the back of my neck and the tip of my nose and the flesh of my lips and I wonder how my hand feels to him I wonder if he thinks my clamminess is gross I wonder
“Please talk,” he says quietly, so quietly. My head snaps back up and my eyes flutter and I don't think I’ve ever felt more like a girl than I do right now. My words fumble in my mouth as I try to regain my control, try to remember my brain, my reasoning, my decision.
I finally whisper back, “How can you expect me to believe that? How can you expect me to trust you?” I choke on the last two words.
I jump when Argyle’s translation sounds so harsh. Will’s eyes never leave mine. He gives me a small smile, then speaks. His deep voice make my eyes flutter more.
Argyle translates, “You saved my life. I owe you at least one good date.”
I go cold. My hands, my eyes, my voice. “So you’re just doing this as repayment? Please. I know you think I’m some sad, lonely girl, but I don't need your charity.” I pull away from him again. The doctor awkwardly translates.
Willem squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head. “Nononono! That came out wrong! Anna, please believe me when I say this: Gerta was nothing and I want to go out with you because I like you, not because I feel like I owe you.”
I bite my lip, still unsure, so close to giving in. He said he liked me.
“I’m a selfish man,” he continues and is translated, with a cocky smirk on his face, “When I like something, I take it, and I rarely pay my debts. Plus, I saved your life too, so you actually kind of owe me.”
I squint icily at him, refusing him the pleasure of seeing that he amused me.
“What do you say?” He hesitantly take my hands once more. “Can you give me one more chance? I promise you will never see my face again if you decide you hate me after.” He looks at me with pleading eyes, reminding me of a puppy. He says something else, to which Argyle sighs and shakes his head.
“What?” I turn my focus to him.
“He says he’ll come back every day and force me to translate his groveling until you say yes.”
This time I can’t fight back my smile. It’s small, but it’s a smile, nonetheless. Will smiles even bigger, his hands tightening. I sigh and shake my head. “Fine,” I say. His smile breaks his face.
Argyle’s voice makes me jump again. “I’m done. Either get yourself a new damn translator or learn some damn Dutch, ‘cause I’m finished being a part of your damn soap opera.”