My parents loved the classics. I don’t mean Gone With the Wind here – I mean the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. I suppose that’s why my middle name is Menelaus – but I’ve never felt much like a king. I don’t share their passion for Greek dramas, but I know enough to find it funny that I fell in love with a Helen, quite literally.
My Helen, too, betrayed me. Years ago, my best friend brought me proof that Helen was cheating on me. She was everything to me, and I was devastated. Before even confronting her, I followed my rage and grief and suicidal wishes all the way to the army recruiter. I was in perfect condition to go straight into boot camp, and I was shipped over to Iraq not long after. I wasn’t afraid of death; I just wanted to punish myself. I destroyed any and all letters from Helen, as part of my punishment. I ignored the slow shattering of my heart and just pushed myself harder.
After five years duty in Iraq, I finally got the pain I’d been hoping for. Many of my friends died in that blast, but for some reason I survived with all but the lower part of my left leg intact. My injuries earned me a medal and a plane ride home. But here’s where things went a little off course. The plane never made it to Seattle that day; she went down in a field just outside of Atlanta. I remember thinking this is it, the end that I’ve been wanting, as the oxygen masks came down. But something wanted me alive that day, too, and I landed in an Atlanta hospital with some minor internal bleeding and a concussion.
I woke up to the smells of disinfectant and death, and everything looked quite hazy. A blonde head came into focus at the bedside on the left. A sharp pain coursed through me, but it had nothing to do with my physical injuries. She was as beautiful as my dreams had kept her. I had been trying to forget her, but everything came flooding back at the sound of her voice.
“Joseph Menelaus Carter,” Helen said. My name on her lips sent shivers through me, and brought on feelings I thought I’d gotten past. “I saw your name on the ER admissions list. I’m a nurse here.”
I groaned and turned away. My mouth was dry and I didn’t trust myself to speak. She just sat calmly and continued.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I’ve been?”
I turned to her and physical and emotional pain made my vision go black at the edges. “H- how…” I tried to speak, but it turned out that between my pain and my grogginess, my voice wouldn’t obey me.
A look of concern washed over her face. “You don’t look so good yourself. I’m going to let you rest and we can chat later.”
I don’t know what happened next, because everything faded to darkness. I woke up to a doctor doing something at the bedside.
“Ah, hello, Joe. Glad to see you awake,” he said, his middle-aged faced lined with wrinkles, the kind you get from smiling. “How are you feeling today?”
“Much better,” I said, surprised at the amount of control I now had over my voice. “Say, do you know a nurse named Helen Thompson?” He nodded. “Could you get her to come see me?” I tried not to let my emotions creep into my voice, but I don’t know that I was so successful. The doctor looked a bit concerned, perhaps hearing the edge of anger in my question, but he agreed to get her.
I couldn’t tell how much time had passed when she strolled back up to my bedside. She sat down in the chair, and I was filled with a rush of nostalgia as her scent traveled through me. “Hi,” I said, suddenly feeling sort of shy. “How have you been?”
“Well, Joe,” she said. “I’ve been decent. How about yourself?”
I gave a little laugh at that. “I’ve been better. What are you doing in Atlanta?”
“I moved out here back to my mother’s after…” she paused awkwardly and cleared her throat. What about you?”
“Um… well, my plane decided to do a detour here, I guess.”
She smiled a bit at that, and then took on a serious gaze. “You know, part of me just wanted to see you hurt. Like, maybe it would help. Heal me a little, you know? Finish the job time tried to start. It turns out, though, that seeing you rips my heart back open. It hurts. I still don’t understand – it’s been over five years and I still can’t figure it out.”
At this I began to feel a righteous indignation. “Can’t figure it out?” Now the old venom was coursing back through my veins. “Can’t figure out how you slept with another man? And that Connor got pictures of you with some banker from Detroit? For god’s sake, Helen, you thought you could get away with it?”
Surprise and annoyance etched her pretty features into an unattractive frown. “Joe, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I mean, I have always, always been faithful to you. I’ve been such a fool that I’ve held onto hope that there was some good reason you left for five years. Do you know what that’s done to me? No, don’t answer that. I can’t believe you.” And with that, she stormed off.
My initial anger was turning quickly to confusion. Helen was not the type to lie; I couldn’t help but want to believe her. It felt like the world was about to crash down on me, but there were still some things I couldn’t understand. At that moment, the phone at my bedside rang shrilly. I reached over, feeling the soreness deep in my muscles.
“Hello,” I croaked, my voice nearly unrecognizable.
“Joe.” It was Connor. “Helen told me you were in the hospital and that… you… I… can we talk? I’m actually in Atlanta right now. Could I come by?”
“Yeah, I think that would be good.” I hung up. I had the sinking feeling that Connor would be able to answer all my questions… but it was more foreboding than anything.
After a few hours or so, Connor strolled in wearing a typically stylish outfit. He put on his trademark half-smile and pushed back his hair. “You look like hell, my friend.” He pulled the bedside chair closer and sat down. “But at least you’re alive, right?”
I snorted. He didn’t sound terribly concerned, but it was alright. I hadn’t considered him my best friend, or even a friend at all really, since the Helen incident. In my mind, he was inextricably linked to all that pain, and it didn’t exactly leave me with warm fuzzy feelings for him.
“So. Iraq?” he inquired.
I sighed. “Look, Connor. Let’s be honest. We could just make awkward small talk until one of us finally brings up the more serious issues, or we could have it out right now. Which way do you want to play it?”
“God, Joe, you never were one to beat around the bush. Sure, there were things in the past I’ve done and I’m not proud of, but can’t we move past that?”
“What if I told you I had no idea what you’re talking about?”
“I’d call bullshit,” he asserted. “Helen said you told her why you went, and I know you would always believe her first.”
“What did you do, Connor?”
“It’s called Photoshop. They were really pictures of you with her, but I changed your features just enough so it looked like someone else. It’s not that hard, really.”
“Why? And why are you telling me now?” I couldn’t hide my disbelief and exasperation.
“I knew it would get out one way or another, and I preferred you to hear it first hand. And as for why, I think with some soul searching you can figure that out, too.”
“You ruined my life, Connor. Five years…” I paused and took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down. “You were my best friend.”
“Joe, I’m going to be honest here. I was close to you to be closer to her. And there’s no way I could have known you would react like that. I’m being honest now because it’s not like it got me anything. You’re a decent guy, Joe. I’m almost sorry for what I did.”
I had never suspected Connor before. But now that I thought about it, there had been some odd behavior… I must have just looked through it. He walked out, and I didn’t really care if I ever saw him again.
The next day a nurse came to check my blood pressure. I asked her about Helen.
“She ain’t workin’ today, hon,” the older woman drawled. “I’ll tell her you asked for her when she comes in tomorrow.”
It seemed like an eternity had passed when I saw Helen walking down the hall.
She sat. “So, Joe,” she said a bit too forcefully, with sarcasm seeping through. “I hear you wanted me.”
Her words cut through me. “That’s not fair, Helen. How was I supposed to know that Connor was such a lying prick? Or that he just wanted you?”
“Well, I’ll give you that, but you certainly were goddamn quick to believe him. You couldn’t have even confronted me about it?”
“I’ll admit I was impulsive. But the pictures… they looked so real. They cut deep, straight to my insecurities. I had been worried you would want someone else. Don’t ask me why, since you were… you are… the most trustworthy person I know. Connor knew just how to hurt me in the worst possible way.” I shook my head to try to fend off the oncoming tears.
A look of concern flashed over her face, and her eyes clouded as though she might cry. “God, Joe, I loved you so much.” She held her face in her hands as the first tears ran down her soft cheeks. “Oh, who am I kidding?” She looked up at me, sadly, and whispered: “I still love you just the same.”
At that moment I wanted nothing more than to gather her in my arms and tell her it was okay to cry, and we could sob together, but I wasn’t sure if she was ready to forgive me just yet. She reached out, tentatively, and brushed a tear from my eye. Our eyes met, and soon after our lips followed. I knew then something I had denied for years. I was still very much in love with Helen. Despite all the pain we’d caused each other, something inside me felt that maybe it could still work out. But she suddenly pulled away.
“Joe, I’m engaged,” she said quietly, her eyes downcast like she was ashamed of what she was saying.
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “But what about all you said about being faithful…”
“I wouldn’t lie to you. This is my mother’s doing. There’s this man… he’s quite wealthy, and apparently he’s smitten with me. He talked to my mother, who promised him she would make me see the light. By this point I was losing hope and I agreed. But we haven’t even really dated… it’s almost like an arranged marriage.”
“Well… can’t you explain things to him?” I asked, annoyed at this unforeseen obstacle.
“It’s… not really that simple. He’s a very powerful man, and he could use it to ruin us.”
“Well, we’ll just have to think of something. Your intelligence was one thing I always loved you. I want us to have another shot at making this work.” I was beginning to feel a little desperate.
“I’ll see what I can do. But first we need to get you well.” She kissed me on the cheek, and began to leave. “I’ll be looking in on you.”
It took five more days before the doctors were willing to discharge me. Helen carefully deposited me at her mother’s house while she went to set things straight with her rich fiancé, Theodore Wells.
After some overly polite conversation with her mother, I heard Helen pull into the driveway. She ran in, breathless.
“I’ve told him a relative in Texas died and that I need to go to the funeral. I booked us a flight to Seattle that leaves in three hours. We better get going.”
We gathered up what little I had and Helen’s necessities and rushed to the airport. On the flight, I asked Helen what we were going to do about Theodore once he figured out that she had lied. She explained that his sister, Theresa, was a friend of hers and had promised to make everything alright.
“Theodore thinks the world of her, and will pretty much listen to anything she says. I think everything’s going to be okay,” she said, smiling.
I put my arms around her and breathed in her elegant fragrance. It looked like everything would turn out all right after all.
A few weeks later I took Helen to visit my parents in Los Angeles. My mother took me aside to talk to me in private after we told them our story.
“You know, Joseph, fate’s a funny thing. If you knew more about mythology, I think you would be quite amused.”
“But Mom, the Greek Helen really did run away with Paris. Didn’t she?”
“Well, honey, it all depends on what version you read. Someday you should really pick up Euripides’ tragedy called Helen.”
“Oh, great, a tragedy,” I said sarcastically.
“I think you’ll find that if you had known that story, you might not have been so worried about things working out.”