Every day this week, I’ve passed them at the Post Office. The chipper woman at a folding table scattered with poppies, with an aging representative of the Greatest Generation propped up beside her, staring blankly at the Chapel by the Sea announcements pinned to the noticeboard. Apparently the same 1,000 yard stare which causes men to catcall at me in the street and women to cross to the other side of the road with their children’s hands tightly clasped allows pert blonde women in “support our troops” t-shirts to pretend I don’t exist, because every time I walk by, she’s busily arranging the poppies, or talking about “our boys” to some earnest or bored victim, who is forced to scrunch into the table to let people pass.
Every day, I try to muster up the nerve to dig out my wallet and buy a poppy, to say something, and every day, I fail. I leaf through my late voter’s guide, I pitch political advertisements into the trash, I open a bill from my student lender, I wedge the Tuesday coupons into the recycling, but I don’t say anything.
I don’t really know what to say.
“The fields of Flanders are a long way from Iraq,” maybe. Or “what do you think about the VA’s unstated policy of refusing to diagnose PTSD in returning servicemembers?” Perhaps “funny, we’re eradicating poppies from Afghanistan, and selling them here!” Sometimes I think I might say “it’s a real pity that the VA isn’t taking very good care of returning Iraq veterans, isn’t it?” Snarky and frustrated on Wednesday, I almost think about snapping “you know, it’s kind of offensive to hear you blathering about packages for ‘our boys’ when there are a lot of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, too.” Or “isn’t it strange that we’re still fighting wars?” Perhaps I should ask her if she heard McCain’s speech about getting “most” troops out by 2013. Five more years.
I think about veterans making poppies when I walk by, and I want to ask “my friend lost his legs. Have you seen them?”
I think about my grandfather when I see that old man in his black cap covered in pins. Don’t let the man get you down. I think about my grandmother, sitting on her brightly polished Indian in a hot pink motorcycle helmet.
As I pass in the already shimmering heat of Friday morning, the pert blonde and her steadfast refusal to recognize that I exist suddenly irritate me. Who is she to pretend I’m invisible, I think. She doesn’t even know me. And I reach over her to take a poppy from the man’s trembling hand.
“Thank you for your service,” I say, somewhat awkwardly, and the woman looks up from her studious poppy arranging in surprise. “Really,” I add. “Thank you,” and I press his gnarled fingers with mine, my split knuckle throbbing in the heat.
There is a pause, and I leave my money on the table, too much, really, but I’m too shy to ask for change, and I stick the crooked little flower behind my ear and walk off down the street.
When I get home, my sweat has caused the red dye to run, leaving a wilted puddle of tissue behind my ear, and a red streak trickling down my face.
“You’re bleeding,” the neighbor I like says.
“America is bleeding,” I reply.