Illustration by Victor Juhasz
That November after Iraq, after all the surgeries on my leg, after I could get around with crutches instead of a wheelchair, after the bruising was only a memory and the concussion toned down to a few minor headaches that only bothered me in bright sunlight or movie theatres, I found myself in California again.
I was having a beer with my best friend, Greg, and his new wife, Chelsea. Greg was the creative director of a PR firm. He’d told me the name once, but I couldn’t remember. He seemed to jump companies every other week and all of their names sounded the same to me. The bar was his idea. He said that I needed to get out more and that he wasn’t going to allow me to spend my entire convalescent leave in my hotel room with the shades drawn. He was talking about his new hobby, real estate.
“You should look into getting something, Paul,” he said. “The market is totally stacked for buyers right now.”
“Right, stacked.” I stared down at his wedding ring. It looked like he’d won the Superbowl.
“I know you don’t have a lot of cash,” he said. “But I can put you in contact with some people. Pull a few strings, get you a good deal.”
“I’m still stationed in Hawaii, why would I want something here in California?”
“Investment. Besides, you aren’t going to be there that much longer, right?”
“I don’t know,” I said, sipping on my drink. Greg loved dark beer so we’d met at a British pub downtown. They didn’t have anything Mexican so when the bartender asked what I wanted I told him “Anything that isn’t the color of mud.” What I got was something that looked and tasted like overpriced Budweiser.
Greg kept trying not to look at my leg, at the brace I’m only allowed to take off in the shower. He was trying to be casual about it, but when you’re deliberately trying not to look at something it’s that much more obvious. Chelsea wasn’t any better. With her slick, pageboy haircut and designer clothes she looked like someone out of a silent movie: Dorothy Parker in Prada. She kept staring at me and I wondered if she was going to say something. I wore a beanie to keep my head warm but you could still see the shrapnel scars on my neck. When I’d had enough, I looked directly into her eyes, smiling, and she quickly dropped her gaze to my arm resting on the table between us.
“That’s an interesting tattoo,” she said, touching the inside of my left forearm. Exposed from where I’d pushed up the sleeves of my thermal shirt was the black silhouette of a winged skull with crossed tridents behind it, the words Aut Vincere, Aut Mori in Latin below, USMC in Old English script above.
Victory or Death.
Greg looked out the window, watched rain spatter against panes, run into gutters.
“He’s got a bunch,” he said.
“Really?” Chelsea looked at me with new interest. Diamonds hung in her ears like stars.
“One or two,” I said.
“One or two?” Greg laughed. “Christ, what have you got, really, fifteen or sixteen now?”
“One less than I used to. The surgeons took care of the one on my leg.”
Chelsea looked down at her amaretto sour, back up at me. She had brown eyes with long, thick lashes that made me think of someone else.
My team was coming back from patrol. There were five of us in the Humvee: Ortiz was driving; Alexander, Weatherford, and Simone were in the back seat. I rode shotgun. It was surreal, the drive. We had just spent three days in the ass end of the city looking for insurgents. Sixteen hour patrols, trying to scrounge up any source of intel we could find, any sign of where the bad guys might be. Kicking in doors when people wouldn’t open them for us, staring into the faces of children and old men. People we terrified with our helmets and goggles and rifles. Now, here we were, after all that, stuck in traffic.
“Just like L.A., right Sergeant?” Ortiz said. “Just like home.”
“If this is what L.A. is like it’s no wonder y’all can’t fucking drive,” Weatherford said, reaching over the seat with his huge, dark hands and smacking Ortiz on the helmet.
I turned around and looked at him. “I’ve been to D.C., Weatherford,” I said. “It’s no fucking picnic either.”
“Too true, too true,” he said. “But I’ll sure as shit take the Beltway over this bullshit any day of the fucking week.” He reached into his IBA and pulled out a cigarette.
“Let me have one of those,” I said. He looked at me.
“Thought you didn’t smoke.”
“I don’t. Mission’s over, we’re in one piece, I feel like relaxing. That okay with you, Lance Corporal?” I was fucking with him by pulling rank. When there weren’t any officers around I never made anyone call me Sergeant. They were my friends, my team. Ortiz was the only one who addressed people by their rank, a habit he hadn’t broken yet, born of his time in Boot Camp and the School of Infantry the year before. More than once I’d told him if he didn’t relax I’d shoot him myself.
Weatherford handed me a smoke, then his lighter. “It’s your lungs, man,” he said. “But I will collect later.”
Alexander said, “Don’t talk about being in one piece. You’ll jinx us.”
Weatherford snorted a laugh. “Fucking superstitious bullshit.”
“Whatever, dog,” Ortiz looked over the steering wheel at the crowds and traffic all around us. “It’s bad luck to talk about how good things are when we’re not back at the FOB yet. It’s…” He thought for a minute. “Tempting fate.”
I took a deep drag off of my cigarette, coughed once, exhaled.
“See,” Weatherford said. “I knew you didn’t smoke. That’s a waste of a good cigarette right there.”
“Fuck you,” I said. “I’ll buy you more when we get back.”
We drove another few blocks and traffic slowed to a crawl. There was some kind of accident up ahead. People shouting, waiving their arms. Some guy in a polo shirt and shitty slacks had a cell phone up to his ear. I finished half of my smoke, rolled down the window, and tossed it out into the street. We stopped at the edge of the intersection and that’s when I saw the woman.
“Heads up,” I said.
She walked out of a nearby building and made her way towards us. Everyone in the Humvee turned to watch. She looked left and right, nervous, taking small, hesitant steps across the pavement.
“Sergeant…” Simone’s voice from directly behind me. I could hear him adjusting in his seat to bring his weapon around and point it at the woman.
“Wait,” I said. “Just a second. She’s alone. Something’s up.”
I’d never seen a woman travel without a male escort in Iraq the entire time I’d been there. I had my own rifle turned outboard, the barrel pointing out of the window as she approached me. Plastic bags blew across the street like tumbleweeds. I kept the muzzle aimed at her chest.
Her body was hidden behind the black folds of her burka and all I could see were her eyes, dark brown against the pale mocha skin of her face. They were beautiful, with long, dark lashes and an intensity, an energy I’d never seen before or since.
“This is insane,” Alexander said. “She must need some kind of serious help or something if she’s coming to talk to us in public like this.”
“She must need food,” I said. “Or water. She must have kids.”
“Sergeant?” Ortiz motioned at the road ahead of us. The traffic had cleared. It was okay to go now. “We can tell Civil Affairs or whoever when we get back to the FOB. This is their kind of shit, not ours.”
The woman continued towards us, walking into the street now.
“Just a sec, Ortiz,” I said, reaching down to get a bottle of water and some rations from my pack. “COIN. Hearts and minds, remember? Let me give her something and we’ll go.”
Then she detonated.
“Well,” Chelsea said. “You look pretty good, considering.”
“Considering what?” I said.
“You know.” She nodded towards my crutches, the brace on my right leg. I could sense her discomfort, wondered what she’d tell Greg in their car on the ride home. “Greg told me it was bad. You were lucky I guess.”
“Yeah, I’m lucky.” I said. “My leg? The docs at the combat hospital told me that it’s always going to look this way.” The skin was covered with long, erratic scars still prominent despite hours of skin grafts. “You’re right, Chelsea, I’m lucky. Lucky that I was ducking down behind the door of the Humvee when the blast went off. Lucky I only got “light shrapnel” over the entire right side of my body. Lucky I wasn’t looking directly at the explosion, like Ortiz, who lost his eyes, or Simone, who’d taken his helmet off right before we stopped and was killed instantly.”
Chelsea looked down at the floor. Greg leaned across the table towards me.
“Dude,” he said in a low whisper. “Relax. People are staring.”
I looked around and noticed that the bar had grown quiet. I took a large drink of my beer and felt my fists unclench, my heart beating in my temples. Chelsea looked at me, said something, but I couldn’t make it out. For a moment, everything became muffled, like I was underwater, and I wondered if it was the swelling in my brain coming back. The doctors told me to stay away from alcohol, but that was over a month ago, and I was only on my first beer.
“What?” I said to Chelsea in what I hoped was a quieter voice. Around the room people drank and laughed and shimmered in my vision. After a moment sounds became clear again.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
I finished my beer, stared at the empty glass, wondered if I should order another. Greg beat me to it. “Two more,” he said, flagging down a waitress as she walked by.
“It’s okay,” I said to Chelsea. “It’s just…”
“What?” Greg leaned in close, almost whispering. “It’s just what?”
“I ordered them to stop,” I said. “Ortiz, my driver, he hadn’t even been in the Corps for a fucking year yet.” I looked around the room, noticed a woman with long, straight hair the color of snow sitting at the bar across from our table. I watched as she drank a glass of white wine, waiting, hoping for her to make eye contact with me, but she never did. It doesn’t matter; I wouldn’t have known what to say to her. I remembered the blast, the way Ortiz’s eye sockets looked like they were packed with jelly, the sounds of screams that took me a long time to realize were my own. “Simone’s wife had a baby while we were over there. A girl.” I looked at Greg. “He never got to hold her, to meet her. All because I ordered them to stop.”
“You didn’t know.”
“I should have,” I said. “It’s not like it was the first time I’d been there.”
Back in my room at the Naval Hospital in Hawaii, a Purple Heart still sat in its box, unopened, on my nightstand.
“You need to think about the future,” Greg said. “About what you’re going to do next when all of this is over with.”
“I can’t think that far ahead.”
“Start.” He took another sip of his beer. “You talk to your dad lately?”
“He sends me an email every now and again,” I said. “You know my dad; he blames the president for what happened to me.”
“He may have a point,” Chelsea said.
I looked at Greg. “You know we’ve never been that close.”
“Yeah, well, I read somewhere that traumatic injury can change that.” He laughed. “Didn’t you used to go to the beach together?”
“Yeah, when I was a little kid. Jesus, I’d forgotten about that. When my parents were still married, we used to rent a cabin near Bodega Bay at the end of summer each year. What made you think of that?”
The last Labor Day weekend we spent together as a family before everything imploded, my father rented a cabin on the beach for us. It was so cold there, and I wondered how that was possible when it was still summer. On the last day, he took me down past the sand dunes and we walked along the shore, my feet numb and pink in the icy water. We went into the surf together and I held onto his leg as the waves crashed into us. I was small, just a kid, and I was afraid that the current would carry me out to sea. I don’t think my dad realized that, just by being there, he was saving my life. That just by letting me hold onto him, at the edge of the water, he was keeping me from washing away with the tide. It’s the last good memory I have of my father, and I can’t even see his face in it. Just the waves washing over us, my arms wrapped around his leg, and the sea stretching on forever to the end of the world.
“We spent a weekend up there about a month ago,” Greg said. “I remembered you used to talk about it.”
“It’s been years.”
“Call him. Let him know how you’re doing.” He dropped a bone colored business card onto the table in front of me. “And call this guy. I’m telling you, he’ll hook you up with a good deal on a house.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Hey.” Greg leaned across the table and squeezed my arm. “There are other things you can do with your life, that’s all I’m trying to say.”
Even with all of the physical therapy I’d been doing, the doctors told me it could be months, maybe years, before I ever ran again, and that my military career was probably over. I’d never really thought about reenlisting, but hearing that I couldn’t made me realize that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
It didn’t feel right, me sitting there, enjoying a cold beer in a bar while people I knew were still overseas. Still patrolling at night, kicking in doors, looking for bad guys. Today, four civilian contractors were found on the side of the road next to their burned SUV, shot in the head, execution style, left to bloat and rot in the afternoon sun. Last week a truck full of Mississippi National Guardsmen were killed when their convoy drove past a car rigged with explosives. The week before that, an Air Force jet got the wrong coordinates and dropped a bomb on someone’s apartment, killing an entire family. They sent a Civil Affairs team to apologize on behalf of the United States, but there wasn’t anyone left to talk to.
We stayed for a few more beers and then Greg took me back to my hotel. The next day I flew to Hawaii where the Naval Hospital released me back to my unit. To the Rear Detachment. Everyone else was still over there. Still fighting.
During the next few months in Hawaii, where the entire world was a shock of green and blue, and high, wet heat that made my uniform stick to my skin, Command made me see the chaplain once a week. I nodded a lot. I told him I was fine. I said that I looked forward to my leg fully healing so that I could get on with my life. I said that even though the doctors figured out that my leg would heal, I knew my time in the Marine Corps was coming to an end.
“So, what are you not telling me, son?” The chaplain said. “What are you still afraid of?”
“Nothing,” I said. “It already happened.”
“You ever talk to anyone else about this? About what happened?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I’m okay, really. I’m fine.”
Today, at the barracks, in my room, there are a dozen emails on my computer. All of them from my father. All of them unopened. There are letters from Simone’s wife. Pictures of his daughter. A description of the funeral I couldn’t attend because I was still in the hospital. This morning, someone in Admin told me that Ortiz is doing better. He’s living with his mother in Baldwin Park, trying to learn Braille so that he can go to college. He turned twenty last month.
I open one of the emails from my father and it’s a photo of him and me when I was a kid. We’re standing on the beach. I’m all elbows and knees with a red pail and shovel in my hand, my father next to me with his arm around my shoulder.
I pick up the phone. I try to dial but I can’t. My hands are shaking.
Kevin Jones‘ work has been featured in The New York Times, Ink Pot, Prime Number, and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. A former Marine, he lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.
Image courtesy of The Joe Bonham Project and Victor Juhasz, artist
Read an interview with Kevin Jones here.