[Originally Published in The Worcester Review (Fall 2011 – Nominated for Pushcart Prize)]
My mother walks me to the front door with Tom, her new boyfriend, following close behind. She touches my arm as I touch the doorknob and I turn to her and she smiles, her hands flitting nervously around her waist for a moment, searching for a place to fit, finally resting on my shirt collar.
“I’m so glad you’re back, baby,” she says, pulling me in for a hug. I hug her back, glancing at Tom who stands in the hallway with his arms crossed. His face twitches a little when he notices me staring at him.
“You’re, uh, welcome to stay here,” he says. “Whenever you need to,” and then looks at the floor, like he regrets the offer.
My mother looks from him to me and nods.
“Whatever you need, baby,” she says. “Just let me know.”
I give a faint shake of my head and turn, and I’m about to walk out when she speaks again.
“I meant to ask,” she mumbles, brushing something off the back of my shirt. “How’s your father doing?” She asks it as if it’s a secret, forbidden question.
I don’t respond at first, just stare at her blankly, stupidly. I feel bad too, like I’m giving off the wrong vibes. I’m not trying to be a dick about it, really. I’m not stuck for words or anything either. I just know that my honest answer won’t be what she wants to hear. You never really know what you should and shouldn’t say in situations like these, but I know “you should be there to ask him yourself” won’t flow smoothly with her or Tom. Tom’s still watching me too. He’s been staring at me ever since I walked into the apartment, the entire time my mother threw her questions at me like I was a patient at her clinic.
I look my mother in the eye and say
“I’ll ask him when I go back to the house.”
My mother smiles forlornly, rubbing my shoulder softly before hugging me again.
“So glad to have you back,” she says.
* * *
Outside there’s a thin fog covering the manicured grass across from my mother’s building. She watches as I walk to my airport rental and I glance back and think about things I don’t want to think about. When I pull out of the apartment complex in Kendall and look at the cars on the road, the streetlights, the gas stations and trees, I feel like it’s all a mirage. Like beneath it all is the same damn desert, simple and predictable. Only, here I can’t lose myself in the orders and missions and agendas and automation of combat. Wasn’t a lot of talking over there, not a lot of analysis or wondering about my own actions. I just did shit. And, as I guide the car down 88th street toward 97th avenue and my old high school, I realize that’s what I miss right now. Just doing shit. No feelings involved. Things are so much more complex back here, back home. My mother and father were together when I left. They were happy, or so I believed. I should have known though. It was the same happiness they had with each other then that they have with me now, a relieved sort of contentment with life simply because nothing is happening for the most part, good or bad. Things just exist, fixed, stationary, safe. But there was always this sadness in their eyes that I’d never been able to explain when I was a civilian. Obviously, they couldn’t either.
I need a drink.
I had one with my father earlier. He tried to hide his gratitude when I showed up at the front door of my old home with my duffel bag and awkward smile. He fingered my military tag and pulled me in for a quick man-hug. There weren’t a lot of words, surprisingly and thankfully. My father’s usually a social man, but he just smiled when I asked him how he was, offering me a glass of whiskey as his answer. He told me I could stay there as long as I needed, until I got my feet under me. I wanted to tell him he looked like he was the one who needed a little support, but that would have opened a whole box of shit I’d rather keep closed.
* * *
In Army basic, they turn you into a soldier. They don’t turn you into an Iraqi. My first month in the desert I tasted sand in everything. It was in my food, my water, my spit, my blood. It rubbed me raw, rawer than basic had left me. I almost missed it at first, the training. Almost. A month in Iraq and the letters my mom sent me took on a whole new meaning. It’s no surprise I didn’t catch the hints of her and my dad’s separation. It was an occurrence of another reality to me by then, the letters themselves my connection to a life I that had become little more than a mirage, a dream world where M16’s weren’t within arm’s reach twenty four hours a day, where car bombs and midnight sirens and streets full of people who hated me with a passion because of my uniform just didn’t exist. I’d come back from patrolling an area and my abs would still be sore from the constant, reflexive spasms that hit them around every corner, every pulled-over car, every yelled order from a commanding officer. And there would be the mail, dropped in the barracks on my cot like scraps of food, my mother’s delicate handwriting spelling my name out with the same care she’d raised me with.
So no, I didn’t see this coming. And even if I could have, I would have just denied it like I did everything else.
* * *
I head down Galloway towards Dill’s Tavern with the radio off the whole way and buy a pack of Marlboro’s at the gas station on the corner of US1. The attendant is young, younger than me, nineteen maybe. A guy named Gustav worked there before I left, an old Russian dude with a heavy accent and an obsession with Hispanic telenovelas. He cried over them, took them really seriously. I can’t even count the amount of times I’d pass by to grab a bottle of water and cigarettes after a night of drinking with my boys and there stood Gustav, eyes puffy and red, the television blasting behind the glass wall. Gustav asked me for my ID every time I came, without fail, claiming in his busted-up English “you never know fucking owner watch.” He’d pretend to spit on the ground in his little cubicle behind the register and look up at the security camera. “Like fucking hawk.”
Now, the kid that stands behind the layer of bullet proof glass smiles when he gives me my cigarettes and my change. I ask him for some matches and leave.
In the car, I pack the box of Marlboros against my palm and pull one out. The match is lit and an inch from the tip of the cigarette before I notice the sign, hanging next to the steering wheel from one of the A/C vents. No Smoking/No Fumar.
I consider doing it anyways, then sigh and wave out the match, putting the cigarette back in the box.
* * *
Outside Dill’s Tavern, I nod towards the man smoking outside the front door. He nods back, talking on his cell phone. I enter Dill’s hoping that Jen will be in her usual spot behind the bar. Jen and I were always close in that distant sort of way people are when one meets the other when one is working. She listened to me and served drinks; I talked and got drunk. I figure me and her could have had something at some point, away from Dill’s, if we’d gotten to know each other. But you know how that goes. I’ll take bar talk right now either way, as long as the alcohol’s still flowing and Jen’s smile hasn’t changed.
Instead, I get Ron. He sees me the moment I come through the door, and I find some solace in this, the kind of comfort you get solely from seeing a familiar face, though Ron’s never been a favorite of mine. I shake my head as he lets out a bellow, hollering so loud that everybody turns and looks in my direction. I smile awkwardly through the nostalgia, almost as stifling as the smoke. The place feels transplanted from a memory, as if I can turn to the left and see myself three years earlier with the boys from my old job, sitting in the booths that run along the sidewalls and trying to convince them that the Middle Eastern desert is where I want, need, to be.
I nod at the few people I recognize, a couple of guys standing next to the pool tables. They look no different than they did the last time I saw them, as if they haven’t left the tavern since I left the city. Ron rumbles over to me, bald head glistening with sweat, newly formed wrinkles on his face.
“Goddamn, it’s good to see you,” he says, and there are a few painful slaps on the back. He ushers me to a stool at the bar, which is empty and bare, reflecting the light from the neon signs above. I sit and look around the room, at the slightly torn vinyl seats of the booths, the two tattered American flag dartboards still set up on the back wall near the flat screen that hangs from the ceiling. The pool tables sit in the middle of the room and the guys I recognize nod in my direction and pick their sticks back up.
“We missed you ‘round here,” Ron says, walking behind the bar and heading towards the mugs. He grabs one and flips on the beer tap in front of him, a gurgling, golden stream filling the glass, foam appearing at the rim. I glance at the sign above the tap, Bud Light. He smiles when he sees me looking at it.
“Bet you missed that too, huh?”
I don’t. I don’t really drink beer much anymore, actually. What I’d really like is another shot of the same whiskey my father gave me, straight this time, no rocks. But for some reason, the thought of switching from my usual at Dill’s gives me a sour feeling in my stomach and mouth, like chewing on bits of sand. So I thank Ron as he slides a few napkins in front of my crossed arms and drops the mug on top.
“Let me look at ya,” Ron says, grabbing my shoulders and spreading my arms out, squeezing down on my biceps. “Everything intact. It’s good, real good. Heard they blowing y’all fellas up left and right out there.”
I raise an eyebrow at him and slowly ease my arms away from his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice my discomfort, just studies me then looks up as the guy who was smoking outside comes back in and joins his friends at the pool table.
“Regular American hero right here, George,” he yells in his southern drawl. “Kicking Al Qaeda ass and what not.”
The familiar ones look over and lift their beers towards me, faint hell yeah’s and fuckin’ a’s drifting over from the rest of the group. Glazed eyes study me then quickly turn back to their games. Ron steps back and gives me an assured nod.
“Hero to me, I’ll tell you,” he says, grabbing a towel from under the bar. “How ya been? Didn’t think we’d see ya so soon. Heard from Steve you was back, figured the family’d have ya cooped up for a while though.”
I take a sip of the beer and grunt. Still warm, as always.
“Just stepped out for a little,” I say.
“Had to get away, huh?” Ron says, bobbing his head with a sympathetic look on his face as he wipes a wine glass with a dirty towel. “Parent’s asking too many questions?”
“No,” I say. Part truth. “Just wanted a drink.” Part fiction. Ron won’t understand anyways. Won’t understand what it feels like to come home to a house with a new paint job and only one parent in it, a father that is suddenly a lot more tired than I remember, a gazebo in the backyard that wasn’t there before, a mother that’s suddenly sprouted a few gray hairs and lives across town, instead of where she lived for twenty-five years before. Ron won’t understand, just as he won’t understand why I don’t drink beer anymore and why the cigarettes in the states taste so much milder straight out of the box than they did in the desert, where menthols were like a blast of icy air in the heat. He looks at me like he understands though, like he knows, and it irks me.
“No explanation needed,” he says, nodding. “Kinda crazy being back, ain’t it? Can’t imagine what they had y’all doing over there, must’a been hotter than hell. Saw that movie a little while ago, the crazy one ‘bout Desert Storm. What’s the name?”
I shrug and Ron laughs.
“The hell am I talking about, you wouldn’t a seen it over there.” He thinks for a second then snaps his fingers. “Jarhead! That’s the name. Ain’t that what they call you fellas?”
“What they call Marines,” I say. I close my eyes for a moment and sniff the air, savoring the scent. “I’m Army.”
“Right, knew that,” Ron says, placing a glass down and picking up another. “No offense. Know that pisses y’all off. You fellas all fighting the same fight anyways. My Pa was a Marine, ever tell you that?”
“No,” I say, looking around. I missed this place, the smell of pool table chalk and spilled rum, the music sifting through the four nearly blown speakers sitting in each corner of the room. The owner of Dill’s had a thing for Nirvana before I left and that hasn’t changed either, the spirit of Kurt Cobain softly crooning Something In the Way.
“Yes sir,” Ron says. “Fought in ‘Nam. He hated that word too, Jarhead. Why, I remember one time, when I was a kid, he damn near broke his best friend’s neck for calling him that. Pa apologized real quick though, real quick. Always apologized for his… attacks.”
Ron nods to himself.
“‘Nam fucked Pa’s head up real bad, but not too bad. Used to take nothing more’n a penny to set him off ‘bout ‘the money shits.’ That’s what he called it, shitting money, like we was flushing dollar bills down the toilet or something.”
He bends down to pick something up off the ground and I take another mouthful of beer, breathing in smoke as I swallow. The combination’s familiar and not at the same time, as if the texture of the smoke has changed over the past two years. Ron stands back up and sees something in my eyes that stops him.
“Yeah,” I say quickly, taking another swig of the beer and avoiding his eyes. “Where’s Jen?”
“Jen?” he says, and the look of stupidity he gives me makes me want to reach over the counter, knock over the beer and throttle him. It is a rush of anger that departs as quickly as it comes, but in that second I could shoot Ron if I had the chance and not think twice about it. I drop my head, take a deep breath and clear my throat.
“Yeah,” I say, nodding. I keep my eyes on the beer. “Jen been around?”
“Been a while since Jen left, brother,” Ron says.
“Ran off with some fella from California,” he says. “Met him when she went to Vegas with her ma. Ain’t that something? Last I heard, they was living in San Francisco.”
I open my mouth to speak, then shut it. I’m reminded of my mother’s house. I want to tell Ron that I wouldn’t have come in if I knew Jen was gone, if I knew that Ron was all this place had to offer. I want to tell him that I wish I never came back to this city at all, tell him that, despite most people’s beliefs about the conditions of war, I miss the fucking desert, the heat, the guns, the shit smell, the order.
Instead I nod again. Ron watches me but his face has changed and I think he can see the turmoil on mine. I slide the beer away from me, reach into my pocket and pull out the pack of Marlboro’s. I shake one out along with the matches tucked in the plastic wrapping of the carton, putting the cigarette in my mouth slowly, pulling it out, licking my lips, putting it back again. The match blazes between my fingers a second later and I’m about to touch it to the tip of the cigarette when Ron hops over and blows it out. I stare at the burnt match in my hand, clenching my other fist.
“Why would you do that, Ron?”
“Sorry brother,” he says, a genuine look of regret on his face. “No can do.”
“Bosses orders. Get fined if we allow it, and you know I would if I could. Especially with you just getting back and all, swear you deserve it, serving our country and making things safe for people like them and they got to go and make laws against your smoking and all.” He speaks fast, like a kid making excuses to his parents, and I look around as he continues in a lower voice. “If it was my place, I would let you, believe it for sure. Fuck the fine, I’d light ‘em up for you myself.”
I notice the guys at the pool tables first, the clear view of the back wall second. The neon signs over there are a little too visible, the normally heavy fog missing. I look down at the bar, bare as ever, think about the guy who was smoking outside, and wonder how I could have missed it.
“The ashtrays, Ron?” I say. “You got rid of them?”
Ron opens his mouth to speak, but just shrugs instead. I sniff the air and feel my anger turn to rising confusion. It isn’t me, not me or the missing ashtrays. The smell is still there.
“Quit playing Ron,” I say vehemently and his eyes shift from side to side. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Seriously, brother,” he says, leaning away from me.
“The smell,” I say, gruffly. I cough. “What about the smell? It smells like-”
“New thing the boss started a few weeks ago,” Ron says, back to wiping the glasses. “Smoking ban had business down, so he bought these… things, shipped them in from England, like air fresheners but not so fresh.” He looks around. “Thought it was stupid at first. Cigarette perfume. How’s that sound?” He glances at the pool tables. “But people came back, even the nonsmoking fellas.”
The guys look away when I turn to them, back to their game. Ron finishes wiping his glasses and pours himself some water. To sip on until closing time. Like he always used to, but not. Because now my memory of Ron sipping water while my friends and I laughed and chugged our beers and listened to each other’s stories is less a memory and more a film reel, as if everyone I imagine is just an actor playing a part. Fiction, not reality. My parents pop into my head, parents I don’t know anymore, in separate homes waiting to reacquaint themselves with a son they don’t know anymore either.
“I shouldn’t’ve come in here,” I whisper.
Ron looks at me as if he’s about to say something, nodding mutely instead. I look at my hand still holding the cigarette and the half burnt match. I drop the match in the mug, standing up silently and crumpling the cigarette in my palm. I brush the residue onto the napkin beside the beer and look around the bar, wipe the corners of my mouth and walk out the door. Ron yells for me to come back soon and I ignore him. I stop on the sidewalk outside, looking back at the glass door to the bar and my reflection staring back at me and, on an urge, pull the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and throw it to the ground.
* * *
Inside the rental, I sit in the driver’s seat and stare at the steering wheel, the dashboard, the muted radio. I know what’s going to happen before it does, and I sit with my head hunched over, breathing slowly, evenly, waiting. The rush of anger hits like a gag reflex, rising from the pits of my stomach and opening my throat up, lurching, my vocal cords vibrating with a yell that sounds hellish even to my own ears. Everything is in that yell, images flashing like spliced slides in a movie. My mother’s face adorned with a lustful smile as she brushes her fingers across the palms of Tom’s hands, my father’s eyes bloodshot and alcohol glazed, Jen clenching bed sheets in her fists and screaming in ecstasy beneath her faceless man, and it all makes me scream louder and I can’t tell if it is out of pleasure or pain or a little of both or a lot of both or no particular reason at all. It doesn’t matter one way or the other because it’s what I want to do. I punch the dashboard once, twice, and it feels good and I wish it was someone’s face, anyone’s, a stomach maybe, with soft organs beneath the skin that could take the brunt of my fists, and I imagine that is exactly what it is and it feels good to do that too. I keep punching until I hear something crack and then I stop. My breaths came out in raspy bursts, my vision swimming. Wheezing, hands pulsing, feet numb, face tingling, teeth clenched together painfully.
And, as quickly as it comes, it’s gone. The rise and fall of my chest slows until I’m breathing evenly again. I look up then and the world is a blur of colors, the sky a gray mass moving in slow motion. My knuckles hurt bad and so does my head, but I think, for just a moment, that I’ll be all right. And that is all I need to start the car and pull out of the parking lot. I wipe my eyes, tasting salt, and turn back onto US1, headed back to where I used to call home.