Did I say a few weeks? I’m gonna have to go ahead and use my “I’m at war” excuse on this one. Without further ado…
LEAVE: Part 2
Arm and arm, we walk. It’s reintegration time. We reintegrate.
Cherie tells me she has a surprise for me. I can’t imagine what it would be, but, as nice as it would sound in theory, I had hoped it wouldn’t be my entire family there to greet me at the gate. I just didn’t have the energy to give the expected surprise, shock, and awe response.
Pleasantly enough, my good friend Brian, who had just gotten back from a year and a half long tour in Iraq, was there with his wife. Brian and I had served in Afghanistan together before, heading up the 501st debate team while in country.
Brian is a writer as well, leaning more toward political commentary (shameless plug – his blogspot is linked to my page at BuckSargent). Not to undercut my brothers-in-arms, but it is exceptionally difficult to find someone on the same playing field as you when it comes to intellectual conversation and Brian always fit that bill for me.
While serving in Afghanistan together, our debates became something of legend. No one dared to interfere or disrupt the magic that was a Paul and Brian debate. No one could hang.
It was good to see my friend again. We made small talk. I congratulated him and his wife on their bun in the oven. It was great to see them together and happy. In truth, to me, it was just good to see him alive and well. Having just come back from the torturous hell that is Iraq, it is always good to see a survivor, let alone a friend.
It was cold. It’s Alaska. It’s March. It’s cold. The air was nice, refreshing. Nothing had changed. It’s Alaska.
I am anticipating my two dogs response to my being home. I know they will be excited and jumpy. They are like that for everyone. I have no doubt they will recognize me. Some may think it’s sad to say, but in truth, they are like my children and I’m cool with that. They bring a lot of joy and humor to our lives.
They’re on me like a chew toy.
Whatever jogs the memory of a slobbering, snorting, bouncing bundle of pug joy, it certainly did its trick in my two pups. It was a nice welcome home. Even if it was from dogs.
The house is flawlessly clean. It’s like a museum. I walk past the exhibits. Kitchen, Living Room (check, plasma TV still on the wall…), Office (check, fanboy action figures still there…no garage sale…whew! Close one.), and Bedroom. The caveman display is closed for maintenance.
It’s an odd thing, settling back into your “normal” life. In the time that I’ve been gone, I have to wonder which one that really is. Fortunately, I’ve left the combat jitters back in Iraq where they belong.
However, I brought a case of jet lag to redefine the term. I am a fucking zombie. Everything is a blur. I am showering. There is space in the shower. The hot water never ends. I close my eyes and twenty minutes go by. That thing happens. That thing when you get out of the shower after a long day and you feel refreshed to the point of exhaustion.
I am sleepwalking. And like any other day at any other time when I’m not gone, I lie on the couch, my dogs cuddled next to me, my wife across from me, the TV blaring in front of us, our cozy little family, small as it is, together again and in the peaceful, couch potato bliss of our “normal” life.
The next morning I’m treated to pancakes. Made from scratch. With that extra ingredient. Indulge me. Yes, it’s love.
It gets later into the day and I am, for some odd reason, completely relaxed. I thought it would be harder than this. I’m supposed to be rushing around, getting ready for a patrol, filling out patrol cards and coordinating with every element under the sun and trying to appease the bosses. Oh, and try to stay alive. That too.
But no. No. I’m relaxed. I’m not even thinking of work. But, then it comes. My men. And I worry. Not too much, but enough. I think about them going out. I think about me, sitting here, eating pancakes (with love), and I think about my men.
I think of them, as I have known it to be myself. 75 Ibs. of gear piled around a human vessel, standing, sitting, driving, thinking, waiting, hurting, stressing. I’m not there. I’m supposed to be there. But, I’m not. I’m here.
And then, a thought. A memory. Something that Stephen, my traveling companion, had said. I was telling him how I didn’t even want to take leave. How it was going to make things worse. That I’d worry too much about my men, like I am now.
He was blunt. He didn’t care. He said that he went out with his men all the time and that if they were to make contact (firefight, IED, etc.) and he wasn’t there…that there’s no reason for him to get upset about it. He doesn’t have to be there for everything. Shit is always going to happen, whether you are there or not. He was going to enjoy himself, just as his men will (or have already) when they’re on leave.
Wisdom. Wisdom that I had in me, but didn’t apply until I remembered his words. I make a pact with myself. I will enjoy this time. I will drag it out. It is not going to fly by. I am going to soak it up. My men are in competent, confident hands. I had to have faith in my fellow leaders in order to move forward. The faith was there. The deal was made. Let leave begin.
We don’t leave the home front until much later. We decide to see a movie locally. We settle on “Ghost Rider,” which I’d already watched bits and pieces of in “haji-vision”(the bootleg copies of DVD’s that we get in Iraq, which are filmed with a camcorder, sometimes quite shoddily, and burned to DVD for our deployment pleasure). It was an awful copy that I viewed, with the focus going in and out, so I decided to give it a go. It was making bank in theaters anyways, so maybe it would be fun.
Yeah, and maybe one day getting your wisdom teeth pulled out with no anesthetic will be like an acid trip to the moon. With go-go dancers.
It was pretty fucking terrible. The only redeeming quality being that of Eva Mendes’ luscious “assets.” I mean, Nicholas Cage’s character eats jellybeans out of a martini glass and it just FEELS like Nic Cage being a weirdo on the set. Here is a top-secret transcript of Cage talking to the director, Mark Steven Johnson:
CAGE: Mark, I think I should eat jellybeans…
MSJ (director): jelly beans?
CAGE: Yeah, man…jellybeans…red and yellow ones…y’know…to represent fire.
MSJ: Ooookay. So, when would you eat these jellybeans?
CAGE: Like, all the time. It’s like a character tick. Like, instead of drinking, he eats jellybeans…out of a martini glass.
MSJ: A…a…a martini glass? Nic…
CAGE: Mark, listen…it’s the character. It signifies his inner struggle with his demons. It’s a symbol of the beast within…
(A PROP MAN brings in some red and yellow jellybeans in a martini glass)
CAGE: Yeah, man, yeah, fuck yeah, man. Look at this. Great. Great.
MSJ: (eating a few jellybeans)….hmmm….not bad. What is that? Pina Colada?
CAGE: Fuck yeah, Mark. Fuck yeah. Pina Fucking Colada. It’s the character struggle.
MSJ: Well…they are pretty good…
CAGE: See? You’re getting’ it man. Y’know, the whole time I was watching Daredevil, I kept thinking that Affleck should be eating some fucking jellybeans…but just red ones. Y’know…for the devil and stuff.
MSJ: Uh-HUH. Well…I don’t know. If we can get Eva to eat some and drop them down her cleavage…
I will make feature films when I’m out of the Army. I can’t wait for these conversations to actually happen. I’m not kidding.
So, “Ghost Rider” was a bust (and I mean that literally when relating to the aforementioned co-star). Thankfully, the wife agreed. Even about the boobs. I’m not the only perv here. Our movie taste has gotten in-sync quite well over the years, which is actually a great thing, considering how many movies we watch together.
Which brings up the thought: How the fuck does a married, American couple stay together when their movie tastes are so vastly different? I truly believe that you can gauge how well a relationship will work out with someone based on his or her movie taste. Now, granted, a lot of women (not all, thankfully) tend to not like the more violent films, and stay with the dogshit fairy tale romcoms that are rampant in theaters.
These are women you don’t want to marry. Unless you like them, too. In which case, there is probably a little too much sugar in your tank.
Do you want to spend the rest of your life watching Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore making moronic puppy love onscreen or do you want to see Bruce Willis jump out of an exploding building whilst shooting two pistols? Yeah, there’s a balance and there are many types of films out there, but you have to ask yourself which kind you want to watch more of.
Thankfully again, my wife has graduated into an advanced filmgoer, even though she still sees anything with Mandy Moore in it. Nobody’s perfect. And, then again, I did drag her to see “Doom.”(oops).
Just like there is nothing sexier to a woman than a man that can really make her laugh, there is some serious credit due to a woman who would rather watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” than “Ever After.”
So, singles…watch what ticket that cute guy/girl is buying in the theatre line. The signs are all there. Pay attention. Or spend the rest of your life watching “Never Been Kissed” and let the vomit fly and the manhood be scraped from your nutsack.
We go to dinner. Chinese. Fuck yeah.
For some fucked up reason, Cherie believes in fortune cookies. Many people tend to grasp at the straws of hope when they get a “secret” message or “prophecy” that foretells good fortune. However, a fortune cookie is a mass generated piece of hardened dough that has no real bearing on your future.
It’s the same as astrological signs. Yeah, there are some interesting things when you look beyond your horoscope in the newspaper, but ultimately you could apply any of the horoscopes from any of the signs throughout any day of any year and make it apply to you. They are too vague and open-ended to truly follow with all your heart.
Cherie makes me take the fucking fortune cookie. I throw it to the ground, smashing it into a kajillion pieces and leave it. Cherie acts like I have just pissed on the Sears Santa Clause display while kids are in line and picks up the fortune, reading it to me, as if it is my punishment to still have to listen to my fortune.
“Wealth will come easily to you” or some such shit. What the fuck ever. Wealth didn’t come fast enough to pay for the stupid fortune cookie.
We eat at home in front of the TV as is our lazy, American, non-traditional way. Our dogs stare on in a blissful, yearning drool, hoping against hope for the stray piece of broccoli or fortune cookie to hit the ground.
Bo maws down the fortune cookie. Strangely, he doesn’t give a shit about the fortune.
I wake up the next day a zombie. Only without a hunger for brains or any weird blisters and slow, unsteady movements…man…We’ve really gotta stop calling ourselves zombies.
We hit the town. We hit the mall. There are lots of colors. There are lots of people. I can see women’s faces. And the outline of their figure. Men have jobs. They actually work. Everywhere we drive, I watch the road. I cringe every now and again when we pass a crack and Cherie hits a pothole. I would usually yell at my “driver” for doing such a thing.
I have choices for lunch. And dinner. And snacks. I have no timeline, no appointments, no meetings, no layouts, no nothing. I have a coffee from Starbucks. It fucking rocks.
I shop, I peruse, I stare, I ogle, and I didn’t use the dictionary once to come up with this shit.
I go to my favorite clothing store, “American Eagle.” Now, before I came home, I actually checked out their online store to see what was shakin’ with their new line up. You bet your fucking ass I just typed that. Aloud.
I dig their style. It’s not over the top, but stylish enough for a Banana Republican like myself. I usually find their t-shirts very comfy. I take a look. I don’t like what I see.
“American Eagle,” must be under new management, like maybe Greenpeace or Cindy Sheehan. They have t-shirts that say, in big, bold, white letters, “Kill Your TV.” There’s another one with a picture of a whale that reads “Save The Humans.”
Seriously. Did they forget that they are called “American” Eagle?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who gave you permission to speak? Just sell your frolicking spring, summer, fall, and winter fashions and shut the fuck up. If we want a message we’ll go to Hot Topix.
I wake up the next day and I’m thirty years old. Where did the time go? I know I left it around here somewhere.
The day blurs by. We shop. We never drop. I keep looking at this as a time for “refit” which is what it’s called when you basically get new gear. I am looking for knives. I need a knife. A good one. An expensive one.
Why do I need a knife? If I get in a knife fight over there then there’s some real fucking issues with the U.S. Army. Not saying it couldn’t happen. But, it’s not likely. This mindset…this “I need a good knife” mindset is a plague of sorts in the Infantry. We are always looking for the coolest new things we can use to kill people.
A knife. What better way? Aside from using your bare hands, it’s the most simplistic and barbaric and raw way. Wait, wait, wait. Come back, don’t get scared. I’m only telling the truth, there’s no need to get upset.
Anyways, I’m obsessed with getting a knife. I don’t know what kind. A good kind. For killing bad guys. I see a fantasy moment in my head, directed by Tony Scott (as all good fantasies should have a bad ass action director) and I’m doing my job on some random street corner in Iraq and this guy approaches and oh fuck he’s got a gun and he’s so close, coming at me, and God Bless REI, because I’ve got the knife out in no time and I’ve stabbed and slashed him several times and his blood is spurting all over me and fuck where’s my camera I need a picture of this moment with blood soaked into my ACUs so I can show people one day and prove what a bad ass murdering bastard I was and my kids can print the picture out and take it to show and tell…
And there it is. The knife fantasy. It’s in the heads of all the infantry. Some will tell you I’m full of shit. I will tell you that they who say I am full of shit are themselves full of shit and I am not bullshitting you. They will tell you they “just like knives” and that they use it for cutting stuff, “like a tool” and blah blah frickity blah.
Why can’t we just be honest boys?
So, the knife thing takes a backseat. I need to ponder this knife. I need to go to a good knife place, not fucking REI. I need them to look at me when I walk in the door and stop dead in their tracks and KNOW what kind of knife I need. They’ll walk to the back…there’s no way anything up front could satisfy me. They know this.
And like finding Harry Potter’s wand, they search for the right knife. It’s in an old, antique case. Dust covered. It was made by some Chinese knife maker who lives in the mountains and it’s all custom, one-of-a-kind. They can’t charge me for it. It’s like a fucking magwai. Except you can get it wet and get it in sunlight.
Definitely need time to think about the knife.
The days continue to blur. We eat McDonalds a lot. We go places. We see things. We buy shit we don’t need. We indulge. We sleep in. We cling. We don’t talk about Iraq. We don’t fight. We don’t argue. Not once.
Okay, maybe once. Or twice. We watch a lot of TV. We watch a lot of movies. We snowboard, (or ski, if you’re a sissy), we avoid old friends (total bullshit), we drink alcohol, like everyday, we have sex (why do we say, “have,” don’t we “do” sex? These matters are beyond me), we watch “The Other Sister” and call each other Carla and Daniel and pray that we don’t have retarded children, we act ridiculous and chase each other around the house and wrestle and pour lighter fluid on each other and set ourselves on fire and run through the neighborhood giving out free hugs…
Some of that shit is a lie. I’ll leave it up to you to figure it out.
We see “300” three times in the theater. It’s fucking ingenious.
Cherie has a planned meet and greet thing with her friends. Apparently, I am talked up to an extent that I am a local celebrity, at least of the dancing furniture guy caliber. Man, even that’s a stretch.
Anyways, we are to meet and I recommend a familiar dive in the Eagle River area. The Homesteader. It’s attached to a bowling alley. It’s the kind of place you’d go if you were a casting agent looking for the “shady” crowd.
Well, okay, maybe they’d hire actors. You get the point. We had some new faces and some old faces and even a drunk, gay bodyguard that kissed me on the cheek and when I grabbed him and shoved him back he told me “It’s okay, I get my ass kicked all the time,” which reminded me that I really don’t need to get into a bar fight here, especially when it would just be a beat down and I’d get arrested and holy shit would that be fun to explain when trying to get back.
Arrest does not get you out of your deployment. It just brings you back with lower rank and less pay.
We took drunken photos and the girls compared cleavage and it was an overall enjoyable time. In the midst of a military life you sometimes blur the friends you have. They separate. You have military and civilian friends and the only difference is one understands what you do and the others don’t.
It was nice to see, once again, that the difference doesn’t matter at all.
We go home. We soak up the last of our days. The feeling in my gut gets tighter every second that I get closer to leaving. The countdown in my head begins again. I’m looking at my watch, checking the date, checking the time, doing the math, figuring out exactly how much time I have left and when the answer comes I breath a sigh of relief. The glass is always half full. As long as it’s not time to go then there is still time enough to relax.
Until the last day. The last day is hell. It’s somewhere in between waiting for the results of an HIV test and the last hour on death row. We do the normal things. We talk. We try to hide the pain. It doesn’t last. The hiding. The pain never leaves. It just gets bigger.
I have all my stuff laid out. The stuff I’m bringing back with me. The stuff I’m sending to myself. I did my best to get it all ready early so that I could soak up every last second and not be running around trying to get it done at the last minute like I always do.
It doesn’t matter. It lingers there, a reminder of what must come to pass.
I get dressed. I put on the ACU’s. They’re tighter, no doubt from the excesses of the last two weeks. Soon it will be 130 degrees and I will sweat it all away.
Cherie’s eyes have a permanent glaze over them. I don’t recognize it in others, only her. It comes when she is about to cry, but it’s very evident. She can’t hide it. Even though she tries.
I say goodbye to my little furry puglets. It will be like nothing to them. I was merely here and then I wasn’t. Their lives will go on without a second thought. I will miss them.
The drive to the airport isn’t nearly long enough. The sun is going down and it’s that super bright shine that turns everything orange. I watch all the buildings and people and cars and lives going about their business and I envy them all because none of them know or will ever know about where I’m going or what I’m doing. Most of them don’t care and never will. And a part of me wishes they knew. And it takes me back to why I joined in the first place. Back when it was about something else.
Back when I felt myself separate from everyone else. And I know it will always be so. It doesn’t make me special or better, it just makes me different. Perhaps it was always that way, I don’t know, but it’s a divide that I know I will always carry.
We pull up to Departures. We both know it will be hard. We both know it will hurt. And it does. Every word spoken, every emotion set free, it stings and burns and we make plans and promises, fate or God’s will be damned, and we say everything that needs be said and we leave it at that.
I don’t look back.