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Beyond Cramped Walls

Poetry & Prose | November 25, 2013

Staff Sergeant Tom Horowitz’s tiny bedsit has a view overlooking the soaring concrete walls of the 100-acre Walter Reed Military Hospital. But he only looks out through the blinds when he knows that Kathryn Sullivan, his PTSD pathologist, is arriving or leaving. His medical file reports that although he’s been able to freely walk with his left prosthetic leg for several months, he hasn’t been permitted to leave the compound since his admission in 2010. Tom was assigned to her treatment program six months after his arrival. Since then, he has demonstrated staggering improvement in managing his trauma-induced stress.

Most days, while Kathryn rushes out of her red jalopy and zigzags across the parking lot, Tom watches her closely. He spots what she’s wearing and organizes a compliment before she meets him upstairs for cognitive therapy. Until a couple of weeks ago, Kathryn never dressed in anything bold—just different color arrangements of the same flats, knee-length skirts, ruffled blouses, and casual blazers. But Tom is no longer surprised to see her in new heels, a pair of tight-fitting jeans, and a buffalo leather jacket, which complement the soft texture of her copper skin. As she leaves work to go home, he almost always stares out of the window at the stretch of highway disappearing under the D.C. skyline. Never actually taking in the endless view, Tom just sits there, fretting over what might have set off her abrupt sartorial changes.

Inside the “Brain Injury Therapy Lab,” a cramped room on the 15th floor, Kathryn has Tom practice simulated cognitive exercises on a computer. For two weeks, the room has been breathing in an exotic new fragrance. Tom was immediately distressed by something familiar in the smell. He was convinced that Kathryn’s perfume contained hints of sumac—a scent that he remembered having permeating the mud-baked dwellings of Afghanistan. His nostrils couldn’t escape the smell that forced him back into the years he spent hunting for insurgent activity around Kabul. When the IED swallowed his leg whole and his face bleached pale in agony, he didn’t shriek. Instead, he funneled every shard of his consciousness into imagining the face of his prospective wife. He’s convinced that he would have captured the Mehsud insurgent group before Captain Freeman’s platoon got him if it weren’t for that explosion. Everybody would have esteemed him for it, and there would have been considerable possibilities when he returned. Only then would he find his wife. He always imagined a delicate, playful, and dependable type that would have loved him for his fearlessness.

Every day, as Tom stares into the computer screen that Kathryn insists will ease his trauma, he cannot help but think she could be that suitable type for him. Today is no different.

“Kat,” he groans as he swivels his chair around to face her desk. “Let’s swap some stories, huh? Tell me somethin’ wild ‘bout that university you graduated from. What was it? Vand-or-belt or something? Got a couple crazy stories myself, but you only know ‘em from peepin’ at my file.”

“Sergeant Horowitz,” Kathryn sighs, with her uncompromising blue eyes still fixed on an article in the Journal of Traumatic Rehabilitation. “While I’d like to hear them, if you’d just work hard on your exercises, you’ll go home in four months. Let’s focus on that. Okay?”

Kathryn hates being called  “Kat,” but she never corrects him. It’s easier to keep him focused on the computer this way. The journals and her training at Vanderbilt assured her that the best way to help Tom’s PTSD is through simulated cognitive exercises. So, when Sergeant Horowitz gets distracted, flexes a mischievous smile across his wrinkled face, and asks her on dinner dates, she knows she has to just keep reading her journal. He’s getting better, she often tells herself. The medical file shows that it has been six months since Sergeant Horowitz exploded into any violent physical outbursts—unfortunately common for him—although Kathryn has never actually been there for any of his episodes.

Kathryn hears Tom clunk his left leg onto the ground. He thrusts his chair over to Kathryn’s, and nudges her leather-draped shoulder.

“I like your jacket, Kat,” he says, controlling what seems like a casual smile. “Where’d you get it?”

Even though she is no longer reading, Kathryn keeps her eyes fixed on the journal.

“Please. Sergeant Horow–”

“It looks expensive,” he interrupts. “Birthday gift or something?”

“My fiancé got it for me, okay? Just finish your exercises!” When Kathryn realizes what she’s said, she immediately jerks her head up, hoping Tom’s still smiling like he usually does when he tries to get her attention.

She flinches when she finds him hovering over her. Whatever smile he might have had a moment ago is gone. Tom’s legs are parked a few inches from her chair like he can’t move. His face appears numb, red, and swollen, as if beaten. She feels uncomfortable under his gaze. His eyes look like empty slits, glaring down at her behind a pair of baggy lids, and his nostrils seem like two vacuums, swallowing the odor that packs the cramped room.

“You don’t have a fiancé. You don’t wear a ring,” he commands, staring down at the woman, convinced she had never actually said anything playful to him.

“W-well, we can’t afford a ring, yet,” Kathryn stutters. She begins to sweat under her jacket, beginning to feel like she might never help Tom recover. “I’m sorry,” she says, turning her neck away from Tom’s eyes. “Maybe just finish your exercises tomorrow, if today isn’t great.”

Tom isn’t listening to her anymore. His eyes are fixed on a bright army recruitment pamphlet lying on Kathryn’s desk. He remembers how the ones he had received in high school weren’t printed in color. They weren’t flashy back then but their purposeful words excited him. Lead the way. Be all you can be. Others will follow where we lead.

His eyes stretch open to reveal a pair of dark pupils, shattered under two red webs of blood vessels. Kathryn isn’t meeting his gaze. He turns his head up to the window and now looks over Kathryn. Tom takes a deep breath, forgetting about the scent of sumac and then suddenly dashes out the door. Even though Kathryn hears the placard – which reads “Brain Injury Therapy Lab” – collapse onto the floor, she continues staring silently at the cramped walls of the room, as if she can’t move. After wiping a strip of warm sweat from her tense neck, she raises her hand to her nose. She takes in her own familiar scent, and then turns her head to the window. She tries to locate her empty studio apartment in the vast city backdrop – wishing a husband were waiting for her beyond the walls. Then it wouldn’t have been a lie. Her neck feels exhausted under a dizzy head. Kathryn starts to drop her face down into her clammy palms when she suddenly spots Tom crashing towards the compound walls. She jumps out of her chair. Heat races up her neck as she scrambles for the emergency phone.

“Security, what’s your emergency?” says a muffled voice.

“M-my brain trauma patient,” she says, calming. “Sergeant Tom Horowitz. He just ran from the PTSD lab and is almost at the Southwest Gate. He’s trying to escape.”