Don’t die for me. One year ago to the minute, Pauline had thought those exact words and now, during the minute of silence in honour of fallen soldiers, she thought them again. Students all stood with their heads bowed, supposedly praying, or at least thinking about men and women who had had been shot, eviscerated, decapitated, torn and tattered over the past hundred years, who had died for all of them. Their knowledge of war did not extend beyond the Iraqi invasion and Afghanistan. True, a young reservist in her class had enrolled: Gabriel, a handsome and sweet boy who often attracted her attention by simply being there. True, the parents and grandparents of some students had experienced World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. As they shuffled and coughed, three girls in the back row carrying on a giggling conversation, Pauline, suppressing an urge to cry, admitted that most of her students understood nothing about the texture of blood and the pain of fiery flesh. They knew only what they experienced virtually on their computers.

How long did a minute spent in private grief last? Last year she could not answer, this year she’d say it lasted a lifetime. She lowered her head again, noting a water stain on her blue silk blouse, for she must always act as a role model, show by personal example proper deference. She did not herself pray to any imaginable deity. It would be unwise to break the enforced moment of silence by telling those obnoxious girls in the back to shut the fuck up. Startled by the sound of profanity in her head as if she had in fact spoken aloud, Pauline drew comfort from anger. This, too, she had learned: rage supplanted images of a husband disembowelled on a dusty road, curled up like a baby, howling.

Yes, things were not supposed to turn out this way, although Philippe had always joked about the hoochie, the pup tent issued to soldiers, which could double as a body bag. Before he bled to death since no help had been immediately forthcoming, Philippe had slept in a tent with her best friend that August weekend when he had lied to her about the end date of his training exercises at the military camp. That was not supposed to happen either, but Philippe, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to his country, had broken his vow to her: fidelity ‘til death did them part.

They had fought, she had kicked him out of the flat, allowed him back in, refused to let him make love to her, not knowing whether to forgive and forget, or to divorce. The momentary affair had been a mistake, he had pleaded, a foolish one, he didn’t know why he did it…it didn’t mean anything…the old standard arguments used by men who betrayed their women. The army sent him to Afghanistan in September after Labour Day. One month later, fully clothed in camouflage, his body burdened with military gear, sunglasses like giant brown bug eyes shielding his eyes from blinding glare and sand, Philippe stepped on an IED, and…separated. She had successfully controlled her emotions during that first minute of silence in class last year.

The weekend before deployment, he had wanted to bring his wife’s body close to his, to kiss and tongue, to caress and insist, wind her long black hair around his hands, oh…sweet mercy, the things he could have done…he had such imagination, such power and gentleness combined. “I wish you’d die,” she had screamed as he packed his rucksack, the last words she had spoken to him. Pauline felt her body weaken in front of her class. Oh, forever that first minute lasted. What respite between then and now? One did one’s duty, she was a dedicated teacher, but daily she was reminded of young men going off to war in Afghanistan and bleeding to death. When she saw Gabriel enter her class, her heart bent in sorrow even as it seemed to burn. She had to prevent herself from staring at him during class.

Eternity passed, and classes resumed. Pauline couldn’t concentrate on mathematical syllogisms, so she let the students out early. Gabriel approached, having stayed behind until the others left. He had always been respectful, a sturdy boy with dusty brown hair and blue eyes who lugged a huge backpack stuffed with books and laptop. She was conscious of a little tremble when he came near her; conscious of, yes, she could not lie to herself, conscious of the desire he aroused. Since he had told her about being in the reserves and hoping for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, she had struggled against embracing and rejecting him at the same time, and often had corrected the false impression that he looked like a younger version of Philippe. Everyone, of course, knew about Philippe dying in Afghanistan. On television news, he had become an instant hero, and she had to conduct herself accordingly and assume a position of piety.

“Can we talk? I have something important to say.” Gabriel began dropping by her office after the beginning of the semester, at first to discuss calculus which gave him difficulty, and then, as he became comfortable within a matter of weeks, he talked about the war and his own military dreams. And his presence began to make her uneasy and excited, and she imagined what he, Gabriel, would do to her, if she allowed. She did nothing to discourage his visits. Now, sitting next to her chair in the office, he began ever so gently, “I’m going to Afghanistan.” Her heart didn’t reveal its agony. Begging her forgiveness… “you see, I have this girlfriend…and she… and since you’ve lost…I mean,” his embarrassment as heavy as his backpack. Moved to pity, Isabel alleviated the boy’s awkwardness. “It’s okay, Gabriel; say what you need to, I understand.”

He had already arranged matters with the registrar, deferred credits available to reservists, and, having just turned 18, he had accepted his first tour of duty before Christmas. Would she phone his girlfriend if anything happened? Yes, and he gave her a piece of paper note with his girlfriend’s name and number already written down. Standing together, she looked directly into his eyes, the same colour as Philippe’s. They remained silent. She thought it odd at first that he mentioned the possibility of dying and that he should ask her to tell his girlfriend. But then felt an extraordinary rush of love for him, as if he had reawakened what had long lain dormant, and she imagined that deep down Gabriel wanted to fuck her before his deployment, as if they were actual lovers.

Prepared to leave, he had first hoisted his pack, then placed it on the seat, so he could face his teacher unencumbered. She held the green note. Really, she could no longer regard Gabriel as her student, not when he was about to sacrifice himself for her. How sweet—and without thinking of the implications, she touched his cheek. Her fingertips sensed the flow of warm blood beneath his skin. When she pressed her lips against his, Gabriel did not step back, did not refuse the kiss. She felt the pressure of his hands on her lower back, his body pushing hers against the desk, the kiss more eager. Such a strong body, as strong as her husband’s. How long had it been since she had revelled in such an embrace? Oh, Gabriel’s kiss, the eager tongue…the last kiss she had not given Philippe. Oh, let the kiss last forever and a day; oh, let them embrace and forget a world burning to separate them: oh, the kiss, Gabriel’s kiss, how much she hungered for it. Oh, let him fuck her until she begged him to stop, and then fuck her some more.

When he began insisting and pushing her back on to her desk, fumbling with her dress, Pauline panicked and placed her hand between their mouths and whispered, “No, not now.” It was too much, too soon. How beautiful his young face when he blushed. She wanted to kiss every inch of it.

“Thank you for trusting me, Gabriel, but you must go.”

“May I write you, Pauline?” She noted the use of her first name. Stroking his cheek again, wishing for more kisses, “yes, yes.”

“Will you write back? Will you write every day? I want you to write me, please. Write me long, long letters. Will you do that?”

“Well, not every day, but my dearest Gabriel, I will write you long and loving letters.”

He put his arm around her neck to pull her close and kissed her again, his tongue slipping into her mouth and his body pressing against hers, and she felt both his hard cock beneath his jeans and his searching hand under her dress. She wanted to yield, to give in to his unstated demands, to undress like lovers, but again she gently pushed him away, and he did not insist.

As she watched the boy gather together his feelings and backpack, giving her one last look before he went out of her office, pausing on the threshold, as if he meant to rush back and take her in his arms and refuse to let go, Pauline clenched the note in her hand. Yes, he had a girlfriend, but Pauline knew she would write him long and emotional letters and her words would boil in his mind and arouse his passions. When he returned from his tour of duty, he’d come back and kiss her again and again, and she would let her student remove her dress. If he hesitated any longer on the threshold, she’d have beckoned him to come to her, and she would have allowed him to do what she knew he wanted. And she also wanted it because, oh, because he was young and brave and about to risk his life. Would he come back from the war as beautiful and undamaged as he was now, desiring his professor deeply, or would he be corrupted by experience and brutality, and be unable to love? Filling the air with his unspoken thoughts, Gabriel disappeared. She bowed her head for a minute, remembering his kiss and the pressure of his body against hers, and the feel of his probing fingers. And she repeated silently: please, my sweet, beautiful boy, come back; please, don’t die for me.