h2>Dating : Yesterday
The wait was finally over. Just over one year after we met online, I was going to meet my first true love, in person. My friends thought I was crazy whenever I talked about Erik. In the beginning, they made fun, teased me about cat fishing and fake accounts. When things started to get serious, they constantly attempted to invalidate our relationship and love for each other. Can you really love someone if you have never even been in the same space at the same time? Never shared a cup of coffee or tea or gone for a walk in the park. If you would have asked me that before all of this happened, I definitely would have said never, absolutely not. The adage, “never say never,” proven again.
I went to college on a ROTC scholarship and left for Air Force Basic Training two weeks after graduation. Everyone thought I was foolish for wanting to enlist after I graduated from college. They all, even my recruiter, told me to try to commission as an officer instead. Commissioning would not get me my dream job though, so enlisting was the only option. The seed was planted when an Air Force Master Sergeant spoke to my eighth- grade class on career day. He told tales of traveling the world and his grave responsibilities as a Loadmaster. That day, I decided that was what I wanted to do and never looked back. I will forever remember the day I raised my right hand and repeated the oath of enlistment, after the MEPS officer.
“I Elle Simone Harper, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God!”
The desire to escape my home life also drove my seemingly odd choices. My parents were always fighting. Usually over money, my mother’s wandering heart or body more appropriately, and constantly being bullied by my older brothers made for a miserable childhood. I always wondered if I was treated differently because maybe my dad was not my biological father. I was the only girl and looked nothing like my brothers or either of my parents. That or I was adopted. Seems I was a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Before Master Sergeant Jones outlined a clear path out for me, I had fantasized about so many different ways to escape the madness.
A college degree and an excellent Armed Forces Qualification Test score helped me get the specialty I wanted, 1A2X1; I was finally going to be an Aircraft Loadmaster. Since I was JROTC in high school and ROTC in college, I got through basic training with ease. Sad, but expected, my family did not even bother to come to my graduation. Dad cannot fly, drive is too long, work schedule, blah, blah, blah; the excuses to not support me were endless. The Aircrew Fundamentals Course proved a little more challenging; however, I was determined to make it, so I got through the course with the help of my roommate and new friend, Jessie. When it came time to pick our assignment choices, I wanted anything that would get me as far away from home as I could possibly be. They said it many times throughout training, “needs of the Air Force come first;” seems they meant it; not one of my choices granted. My first assignment was Joint Base Charleston, barely over 100 miles from my hometown of Columbia South Carolina.
The first few years flew by; I enjoyed everything about being away from home, having a career, money in my pocket, being old enough to drink, and seeing the world. I was 24- years old, had already walked on five different continents and explored 55 different countries. Life was great, but sometimes it was lonely. I mean, I had my friends and coworkers, but my family was still not a significant part of my life and I had not seriously dated anyone in years. My Senior NCO in charge, Master Sergeant Laura Gillard, happened to be a bad ass and with only a few women in our chosen career, she wanted to look out for me and became my mentor. She told me very early on, not to date anyone on the base, especially not air crew. Sage advice grounded in her and other commiserating females’ experiences. Based on my limited knowledge, I thought it would be easier to date a military man; how many civilian dudes could handle my independence as well as my hectic travel schedule? Slim to none I would bet. A military man should at least be sympathetic.
Big brother really is always watching. One day, I was chatting in Facebook Messenger with one of my friends from basic training who actually got her first choice of assignment, Honolulu Hawaii; everyone was jealous. Anyway, I was telling her how I was thinking about checking out a few dating apps to find myself a beau. After we got done chatting, I went back to my feed and there was a sponsored post for “MilitaryCupid.com.” I could not believe my eyes; we were just chatting about online dating and “that” popped up in my timeline. Felt like a sign to me, so I spent a few minutes setting up my profile and sipping Moscato. Answered a few questions, then uploaded my most flattering pictures; my favorite was of me in my flight suit standing on the ramp of a C-17 cargo plane, fists on hips, in my super woman pose. After I validated my e-mail address, I was ready to checkout people’s profiles.
There was an option to view members currently online, so I decided to start there. About half way down the page, I spotted Erik’s profile. His hazel eyes were what grabbed my attention. I checked out his photos, then the details of his profile. Erik was 26- years old, in the Navy, stationed in Virginia Beach, and seeking females from 21–30 years of age for “Pen pal, Friendship, Romance / Dating.” Since he was online, I decided to send him a message; a simple one, “Hello Erik, nice to ‘meet’ you.” He immediately responded and we playfully chatted and got to know each other. I still believe it was liquid courage that encouraged my behavior that evening; before I realized it, we had been messaging back-and-forth for 2.5 hours. I learned he was originally from Seattle Washington; really wanted to join the Coast Guard, but that didn’t work out; a Petty officer First Class, Master of Arms; and wanted to find his best friend and future wife on the site. When I told him it was getting late and I had an early show time fastly approaching, he dropped the other shoe.
“Hate to ruin what seems like a great connection here, but I’m leaving for a 13- month deployment tomorrow morning to D’jibouti Africa. I actually logged in tonight to suspend my account while I’m deployed.”
Although I had just met him, those words sent a twinge through my heart. I tried to check my disappointment and stay positive. “So what does that mean exactly? Would you like to continue talking to me?”
“Why not, it’ll be nice to have a pen pal for a little motivation while I’m deployed. As long as you’re good with that, I’m good.”
“Exactly, why not. My e-mail is email@example.com and my number is 803–790–0987.”
“Cool. Mine is firstname.lastname@example.org and 206–454–6540.”
“OK, goodnight, chat with you soon.”
The next morning, I sent him a “Safe travels.” text with a winking, kissing emoji and immediately put my phone in airplane mode for my own flight. I did that so I would not be stressed thinking about if he would respond or not. When the crew and I arrived at our first stop, I was surprised to see I had a missed call from Erik; I smiled a big cheesy smile then listened to his voicemail, still gleaming.
“Hey Elle. It was thoughtful of you to send me a text this morning. I hate I missed you, because when you land, I’ll be airborne. Oh well, I’ll try you again once I get settled. Safe travels yourself. Bye.”
I was going to have to let him know, it was bad luck to say bye; we will work on his salutations later. I was giddy for the rest of the day. Our mission went off without a hitch and two days later I was back in Charleston. I had not heard back from Erik at all; unsure if I should be worried or disappointed. Our usual hump- day lunch at the club was in full swing when my phone buzzed; it was just an e-mail notification, so I chose to ignore it for now. When I got back to the office, another buzz brought attention back to my iPhone. Just news alert this time, but I decided to check my e-mail since I had been distracted. There was a message from Erik, but it was brief and dry; he was safe, still getting situated, and would reach out to me soon.
That same night, about five minutes before 10 o’clock I received a text, “goodnight beautiful and sweet dreams.” That simple message had me grinning from ear- to- ear for more reasons that one; mostly it meant, he paid attention. When we chatted online the first night, he teased me about being so adamant about my 10 pm bed time. I quickly looked up our time difference so I could respond appropriately. His schedule must still be off, because it was 5 am there. “Good morning to you handsome, I hope you have a wonderful day.” Later that day, at lunch he called me via Facetime; I was sitting in my car after just having pulled up to the BX, his timing was perfect. He looked even better live than he did in his pictures. I hated that he was seeing my “military face” before my “civilian face.” My hair was pulled back in a tight bun, no makeup, not even lip gloss.
He put those silly thoughts at ease, as soon as I answered; he said, “Wow, you are gorgeous Elle!”
“Thank you Erik, that’s very sweet of you to say. But you are surrounded by mostly men right now, so your gauge may be off. I could have three eyes and two left feet and you’d probably still say I’m gorgeous.” I used humor to help deal with my nerves.
“No, you really are beautiful! I just got back from dinner and I hoped you might be free since it’s around lunchtime on the East Coast.”
“Very perceptive and thoughtful of you Erik. I am free actually; just pulled up to the BX, was gonna grab a chopped salad from subway.”
“Should I let you go then?”
“No, I’ll get my lunch when we’re done talking.”
We chatted for nearly an hour, mostly about his deployment transition. This one was different for him, because Erik had never been on a land- based deployment; he had only deployed with his ship previously. The time change was really kicking his butt. We agreed to make this a daily call, post his dinner and my lunch. When we finally ended the call, I rushed in to the BX to grab salads. I felt bad because I was also getting lunch for a coworker and my NCO also. When I tell them what took so long they would both understand; I had already told them about meeting Erik and his deployment.
Erik and I chatted almost every day on FaceTime, when I was not flying anyway. We also shared silly memes and GIFs throughout the day via text. Before I knew it, we were half way through his deployment; that milestone was met with happiness and disappointment. Midway through the unit’s deployment, the crew was scheduled for 5 days off for R&R. We tried to arrange for me to meet him in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for those days, but our efforts were thwarted when my own deployment dropped. Luckily mine was only 120 days, in Qatar.
We continued getting to know each other and our relationship deepened. By the time I got back to Charleston, he only had three more months left on his deployment. We started making plans for when and where we would meet each other when he was back stateside. The day we made the arrangements final, he surprised me with an “I love you Elle,” as we got ready to end our call. Without a thought, I replied, “I love you too Erik.” It flowed so easy and seemed so natural. Neither of us made a big deal about the declaration, as if we had said it to one another hundreds of times.
The time flew by; we were two weeks away from finally getting to lay eyes on each other, in person. His lips touching mine was officially my new obsession. Every day when we talked on Facetime, I stared at his lips, longing for our first kiss. When he called for our usual chat date, I answered enthusiastically, “Hey honey!”
“Nine days and a wake-up babe. How are you doing today?
“Better now that I can see your handsome face. I can’t believe I get to put my arms around you in 14 days. I cannot wait!”
“Yep! I’m gonna spend four days in Seattle with my mom, then I’ll meet you in Atlanta. I can’t wait either. I booked us a room at the Georgian Terrace Hotel. We’ll spend the week exploring ATL and making love. That’s my plan anyway.”
“Sounds perfect to me! This may sound odd, but I think we should meet in a public place first; like a real date. What do you think?”
“Great idea, I like it.”
As soon as I landed at Hartsfield Jackson airport, I turned on my phone and saw the bad news. An e-mail from Erik explained his flight had been delayed due to weather and he would not arrive until the next afternoon. He clarified he had already informed the hotel I would be arriving without him and had rescheduled our dinner reservation for a brunch reservation for Sunday afternoon. I was extremely disappointed; however, I had waited for over a year, what was one more night really? I took an Uber to the hotel, had a Facetime session with Erik, then walked to a restaurant recommended by the concierge. I could barely sleep that night because I was so excited about meeting Erik the next afternoon. Even my go-to sleep aide, masturbation, failed me.
The next day at the brunch spot, checking my phone became the action to settle my nerves while anxiously awaiting his arrival. According to the Delta app, his flight landed 45 minutes ago, he should be here by now; even given the crazy Atlanta traffic. Panic kicked in with all the ‘what ifs.” Some were logical, but most were completely irrational. What if he changed his mind, what if he did not want to meet me after all? What if I was just a pawn to help him pass the time for his deployment. The rabbit whole was getting deep and dark. I called him several times; my calls went straight to voicemail. He was 1 hour past due, now I was really starting to freak out. I paid the tab for the mimosas I ordered and decided to Uber back to the hotel. My emotions drifted from concerned to pissed; clearly, I had been stood up. What was his endgame? Why would he lead me on for a year and have me fly to Atlanta, just to leave me hanging.
The Uber dropped me off and I went to check the room just to make sure we had not crossed wires. While the elevator ascended, anger gave way to love. I convinced myself Erik was in the suite waiting for me with flowers and champagne. Love quickly transitioned back to anger when I discovered he was not there. Seriously, what the hell is going on here?!? Something in my gut told me to head to the airport. I jumped on the elevator back down to the lobby. On the way down, I used Google to figure out the Marta option back to the airport. As I rounded the corner, there were police lights everywhere, lighting up the street, and all the way to the North Ave Marta station.
I asked several people along the way if they knew what was going on, but no one that far back had a clue. A guy I did not ask, spoke up, “there was a shooting; I heard the gun shots earlier.” Instincts and training pushed me forward; I continued to inch my way through the crowd toward the police barricade. When I finally got to the police line, I showed the officer my military ID and told him I was CPR certified, trained in self-aid and buddy care and volunteered to help if needed. He thanked me for my service and told me things were now under control.
A little white lie got me more details about what was going on in the train station. I told the officer my fiancé was returning from deployment and should have been coming from the airport to this stop. Fiancé carried more clout than girlfriend. He shared as much as he could. A guy tried to rob passengers in a single car in between stops at gunpoint; a good Samaritan stepped in to stop the assailant and things went bad. The fatalities and injuries were still being assessed. My mind immediately went there, Erik had to be the good Samaritan. Now I was panicked … was Erik hurt, was he alive? No! NO! This cannot be happening, we were supposed to meet yesterday, none of this should be happening.
I pled to the officer to try to find out the name of the good Samaritan and his status, because I was certain it was my fiancé. I explained that he was just returning from deployment and we were supposed to meet two hours ago; death would be about the only reason he would miss our rendezvous. The officer stepped away and turned his back to me, then radioed to some unknown source. The somber look on his face when he turned back around and walked toward me told me everything I needed to know. I immediately fell to my knees, crying and screaming no, no, no; why God, why. A female officer approached with a gray wool blanket, gathered me up, and took me to a nearby ambulance.
Shock had taken over, I was rocking backing-and-forth, zoned out when the detective approached me.
“Ms. Harper is it? This is premature, but I served myself, so I wanted to come share what I could with you. By all accounts, Erik died a hero. Witness accounts portray him as trying to save the passengers after the gunman shot a commuter who refused to give up the Rolex watch his wife had given him as an anniversary gift just days prior. He rushed the guy after he fired and a struggled ensued. The gun went off and Erik was shot in the chest. Another passenger tackled the gunman and knocked him out cold. There were two fatalities, Erik and the other passenger the gunman shot and several injured.”
Grief and guilt consumed me; he was in Atlanta to see me. If we had never met, he would still be alive. We were supposed to meet yesterday.
A week later, I received a package in the mail from Erik’s mother. I did not want to be alone when I opened it, so I called my friend Jessie to come over. I poured a glass of wine for each of us and told her I just needed her to be there when I opened the package. I opened the box with reverence. There was a white envelope on top of some light blue tissue paper wrapping. I opened the envelope first and read the enclosed handwritten letter slowly.
I am Carol, Erik’s mother. Erik and I chatted once a week during his deployment and he spoke very highly of you. I am sure you continually have thoughts that this is somehow your fault. Please do not torment yourself in that way. This was the act of a madman, a coward. I truly believe when it is your time, it is your time. His funeral will be next Monday, here in Seattle; I really hope you will be able to make the service. I am sorry we will not get to meet under more favorable circumstances.
P.S. The enclosed box was a gift Erik picked out for you when he got home. He was excited about giving it to you. I helped a little; I hope you like it and will cherish it always.
The box was Tiffany blue and contained an infinity necklace. I held back my tears. Jessie placed her hand on mine, then took the necklace and placed it around my neck. She held me as I sobbed, until I could cry no more. The feelings and emotions experienced for Erik and this tragic loss were overwhelming. I cried and ached for a man that I had never seen in person. Although Erik never touched my body, he undoubtedly touched my heart and will forever have a place there.