Einar wasn’t getting very far in telling her what he’d been thinking about, remembering, as he’d read the transcripts yet again, sat there silent, apparently lost in thought, so she tried to help, get a bit of conversation going.
“You told me last night that one of the reasons it’s been so hard for you to really make the decision to eat more and get stronger is that when you’re not having to struggle so hard, minute-by-minute, you thought you’d have a hard time facing who and what you are, some of the things you’d done over there, or the ones you hadn’t done… I was just wondering, did you ever have the opportunity to talk to anyone else who’d been held prisoner over there? Later, I mean, after you came back?”
“No. There were a lot of guys, of course, pilots most of them, flyers, but most of them…well, they were over there for three, four, even five years. My experience was nothing, compared to that. Nothing at all. Don’t suppose we would have had much to say to one another.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. And it certainly wasn’t ‘nothing at all,’ your time over there. It was different in some ways, sure. Shorter. But unlike some of them who had a reason to hope that they’d be freed someday, that their government might be trying to negotiate something like that or was at the very least aware of their existence and the fact that they’d been captured…”
“No, we didn’t have anything like that. Not a chance. Nobody was coming for us. Nobody would even dare officially acknowledge our existence, because of where we were at the time. Geographically, I mean.”
“And you knew that at the time, didn’t you?”
“Oh sure, we knew it. Definitely on our own out there. We knew that going in.”
“And your experience with the…interrogations. It would have been very similar, or even worse in some ways to what they faced, at least for the time they had you, because like you said, they had no time to waste. Needed all the information right away, unlike the situation in the actual prisons, where they might have had months or even years to wait somebody out.”
Einar shrugged. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. No sense attempting to compare the experience of one man to that of another. In the end, all that really mattered was how a man had acquitted himself under the circumstances he, himself, had faced, and that was where the trouble came in, because fact of the matter was that he had broken. Given in. Talked to them, and in under a week, too. Mere days. After that—well, it changes who a person is. Takes something away, and though in some sense he’d spent his entire life trying, there was no getting it back, that sense of one’s self, of integrity, of wholeness. Always something missing. He told her so, in simple terms.
She put a hand on his shoulder, glad the soft, enveloping darkness was there to conceal her tears. No. Why must you see it that way? But she didn’t try to argue. Knew it would be senseless to argue.
“I thought you never gave them anything they could use, anything real.”
“I didn’t. But I did talk. I let them get to me, and eventually…well, I just know I would have let something slip. Something real. Some little detail. If they’d kept me. Kept at it.”
“So would anybody. Einar, when the feds had me in that interrogation room…they didn’t even do anything, really, just some bright lights, handcuffs and…the threats they were making about Will, but I would have done it, too. I know I would have. Talked, tried to give them what they wanted, or made them think I was, anyway. I had no doubt. It was awful, and they never even touched me. It was the threat of it. So, what do you think of me? Do you think I’m weak? Unworthy? Somehow less than I was before, as a human being?”
“Of course not. Don’t even say that. I would never think anything of the sort. You’re the strongest lady I know, and I sure do admire you for that. But this is not about you, or anybody else.”
“But you’re human, like everybody else. Why can’t you allow yourself to be human? Forgive yourself for being human?”
“Yes. That’s what I said. This standard you’re trying to hold yourself to…”
“It’s mine. It’s always worked for me.”
“Don’t get angry, but this is important, because I think it goes back to what you were talking about last night. About how you couldn’t forgive yourself for what you did, or didn’t do over there while you were in captivity, because your actions were the only thing you had control over. Or something like that. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Well, I’m just trying to point out to you that while yes, each of us is in control of our actions and is responsible for our choices, you reacted the way any human—any strong, honorable man—would have reacted, under that particular set of circumstances. And I just thought if you’d talked to some of the others, or even heard accounts of what they went through, it might help you in some way to see that.”
“Oh, you hear things, read things over the years, though I never did seek those out, the stories of others. Several reasons for that. One being that I’m not looking to excuse my behavior. Wouldn’t even be right to try.”
“And I’m not talking about excuses. You don’t need excuses. Just a little understanding. You need to let yourself understand”
Quiet then for a long time, Will whimpering for food and Liz doing her best to satisfy him, and when she turned her attention back to Einar it was to find him weeping, silent, even in that, not letting himself go, but she could feel the sobs… After a time he was finished, gritting his teeth and staring into the darkness, trying to get his breath.
“You’re a real wise person, Liz. You know that? Don’t know how you ended up with a big fool like myself, but I’m gonna try to make it right for you. Make it better, this life.”