by Kama Shockey
The first time I fell asleep next to my wife after I got back from the ‘Stan, I put my hands around her neck and tried to choke her out. She smacked me across the face, woke me up, but the worst part is, I didn’t stop for a few seconds. I snapped out of it before I really hurt her, but what if I didn’t, you know? What the fuck? I was an unholy mess. If she had any sense, she would’ve left then.
As it was, Alex wouldn’t touch me the rest of the night, wouldn’t come near me. She looked a helluva lot like the scared, bag-of-bones feral dogs in-country. Wide-eyed and panicky, like I might hit her. The scary thing is, I might’ve. What the fuck did I know about what I was capable of?
Next day she comes in the bathroom while I’m shaving, suitcase trailing behind her. Subtle. “Where you going?” I wanted to know. I let the water run and stared at her face, all scrunched up. I tried not to look at the red imprints of my hands she couldn’t cover up with makeup. The rest of her skin was ghost white.
“My mom’s. Just for a while. Turn off the water; you’re wasting.”
“You gonna tell her what happened?” I should have been ashamed to ask, but shame did nothing for me anymore. I’d crossed a line way far back when it came to me giving a shit.
“That’s what you’re worried about, Hank? Really? Fuck you.”
“I’m not worried about your mom, I just think we should keep this to ourselves, Alex. Until I get my stuff figured out.”
“My mom’ll notice either way, don’t you think?” She pointed to her neck and my cheeks and neck burned in response, probably turned the same shade of red. How the hell did I let that happen? What if I hurt our daughter?
“I’ll pick up Bella on the way out,” she said, like she was answering my question. I’d only seen my daughter for five minutes in the last seven months and she was already being ripped away from me. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing though. I was fucked up. Unsafe.
“Call and let me know you guys made it.”
She came back a couple weeks later, knocked up and full of ultimatums. Yes, I’d go to counseling if she stayed. Yes, I’d try to change my MOS. No, I wouldn’t mind if she slept in the other room for a little while, until she saw that I was following through.
That was her catch phrase—follow-through. I washed out at MARSOC—I lacked follow-through, should’ve trained harder in the swim. I fucked up in the one English class I took on base—wouldn’t have happened if I had follow-through, studied harder. She had follow-through in spades, though.
“You ever gonna come back in here?” I called out from our bedroom three months later. She was still in the spare bedroom, wasn’t starting to show yet, but I could hear her throwing up in the back bathroom. She wouldn’t let me hold her hair back the first time I went back to help, so I stopped trying. I heard the toilet flush and her soft shuffle, shuffle, making her way towards me.
She was standing outside my door looking like the walking dead—she isn’t one of those girls who wakes up pretty if you know what I mean—a line of spit hanging from her chin. I pointed to it, and she wiped it off with the sleeve of her bathrobe. Fucking disgusting, I thought.
“No, I am not. I am just following through on my end of the promise, Hank.”
“Oh, you mean your promise to be a blue-balling bitch if you don’t get what you want the minute you fucking want it?” She didn’t even flinch. I was a Class A asshole then, full of anger at all sorts of stuff I couldn’t control. I took it out on her, of course, because no one else would put up with me. I kind of figured it was her fault for not having the balls to really leave. It was like a dare: how fucked up will I have to be to get you to go?
“Yes, that promise, the one we made to each other after you tried to kill me, but I stuck it out. If I’m going to stay, you’re going to do the work. Follow through with your end, get a counselor, and we’ll see.”
Follow through. Fuck that. I went outside and smoked a cigarette instead.
She moved out of the spare bedroom after she had the baby and we needed the space. Forget romance or forgiveness or any of that shit, we were practical about the whole thing. And I never followed through. Reenlisted and got ready to deploy as a grunt. Two more times.
All of that was three years and two deployments ago, but for some reason it’s all I’ve been thinking about the past two days as we sit like sardines in a flying tin can headed home again from the ‘Stan. Same shit, different day, different lifetime it feels like. Time does anything but fly when you’re overseas or gearing up to head back out. Somehow me and Alex have two girls, and I’m coming back from the suck for the third time. I didn’t think life could get worse than Fallujah three years ago, but per usual I was wrong. There were a few minutes—like right after the donkey incident—when I thought we’d be okay, that I’d be able to be there for her. Looks like that’s fucked along with the rest of it. I’m coming home to a wife who won’t get a clue, and a dog—my dog—she sent to die at the vet’s and keeps his ashes on the mantle like that’ll fix making this decision without me. What the fuck? I leave to defend this country and I’m not part of the family anymore? Don’t get a say in what happens? I throw back another pill doc gave me for my cheek. Plus an extra for good measure. Take out the photo of Chesty, my dead mutt, and rip it in half. Doesn’t matter now, does it?
I’m on the C-130 next to Miller, whose head is buried in the same Stephen King book he’s been rereading since his knee got blown out. When he’s not reading, he’s writing. Probably some pansy-assed feelings and shit. I’d be worried about him if I didn’t have my own combat ghosts. My rifle is across my chest, making it impossible to get comfortable. Still, I don’t know how I am supposed to turn it back to the armory in a few hours. I’ve lived with that hunk of metal like she was my wife for seven months and who knows how long working up.
“You excited to be the fuck outta there?” I ask him. We haven’t spoken much since Langford died.
What the fuck is “mmmm?” I want to ask, but I leave him alone. That boy’s a goner if he doesn’t man up, start working out whatever he’s got going on underneath that high and tight. I heard through Gunny that the Corps’s gonna medically discharge him when we get back anyway. Poor fucker.
This flying cesspool is filled with tan cammies that haven’t been washed in a hot minute and Marines that are just as disgusting. I look around and realize I don’t know more than half these guys and the rest of them I know too much about. Like Miller. The last conversation we had in-country was pretty fucked.
“What are you doing when you get home? First thing after a shower?” I asked him as I used my dull razor and bottled water to rape my cheeks. I expected him to say, Kiss the kid, fuck the girlfriend. Maybe not in that order. Miller is pretty quiet, but he has a wicked sense of humor when he lets loose. We were at the bottom of the pit, our “bunk” by the bridge we guarded. It was a couple days before the explosion.
“I dunno. Look for a job? I’m getting out.”
“The fuck? Didn’t you sign on for another go?”
“Nah, just an extension. To deploy, take care of the kid’s medical expenses, Sarah’s pregnancy bills.”
“So what’re you gonna do if you get out? Work at Home Depot or some shit?”
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? You know nothing’s gonna be like this. You wanna work for the man after all the stuff you’ve been through?”
“Won’t be so bad.”
“Miller, what the hell is going on? You alright, brother?”
He was quiet, staring at the dirt wall across from us, letting handfuls of the sun-baked sand run through his fingers. Normally this kid washed his hands every time he sneezed—hated germs, and especially hated the mercury-fine sand that bore into everything we wore, everything we ate, everything we touched. Something was up.
“Yeah? Oh, well, Sarah left, took Johnny with her, so I’ll just work wherever. I’m not too worried.”
“Whoa, man. That’s some serious shit. You okay?” I didn’t know what to say. I knew Sarah, thought she was fine as hell—even caught her checking me out at the gym once or twice before she was knocked up, with her freaking killer brown eyes that made winking feel like an invitation for sex—but this was fucked. I wondered if Langford knew about Miller’s plans, about Sarah leaving. Those two were inseparable, so hopefully Langford could talk him outta leaving the Corps, where at least he had his brothers. Shit.
“Yeah, fine. Hey, wanna play some poker?” We did, and I never brought it up again. We got blown up by the donkey and kid two days later and Langford died. My fault. No one said it to my face, but I know they all were thinking it, could see it in the way they wouldn’t look right at me any more. Miller especially. All his little quirks turned into big ones, meant more than just combat crazy was going on. Sarah leaving could’ve been something he worked through, but losing her and Langford the same fucking week was just too much, except no one knew it then. Just like everything else in the Corps, we were too late with Miller.
The wife and I’ve been better since that first deployment, but I still can’t understand why she stuck around. What the hell did she have to gain from being handcuffed to a guy who might finish the job he started three years ago? What if, after all this time, I couldn’t just be slapped awake? Yeah, I hadn’t hurt her again—not like that first time—but I wasn’t any good to her either. Sarah left Miller because she was afraid of the same thing. Protected her kid. I couldn’t help thinking about her all the time now, and not just those come-fuck-me eyes. She’d sent me a letter after the explosion, the first line apologizing for leaving Miller, like it mattered to me. I barely knew her, or him, it seemed.
Dear Hank, Staff Sergeant Conner (which one?!),
I am sorry for leaving Adam, for what it must have done to him, but I couldn’t stick around and watch him disintegrate in front of me, in front of his son. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I am writing you…
I was wondering. She went on to ask me to watch out for him, blah, blah, blah, which I was trying the fuck to do, but Miller wanted nothing to do with me when we lost Langford and Lopez, then nothing to do with anyone. I’m gonna be in debt to her if he doesn’t come around? I’m pretty sure Alex would tell me that per usual I have no follow-through, that because I made the wrong call with Langford and he landed on a bomb, that I can’t even take care of my own men, but she has no right to talk. She couldn’t even keep my goddamned dog alive, and had the nerve to replace it with a yapping puppy the girls picked out. She hadn’t done shit to keep this family together except not leave. Even Sarah had the good sense to realize that wasn’t enough. I wasn’t going to tell Alex. About any of this—Langford, Miller, Sarah—none of it.
When we touch down there is applause and a shit ton of “Oorah!” from all of us. We’re just so fucking happy to be off hajji soil. Germany’s not so great from what I hear, but no one’s trying to shoot our bird outta the sky, so there’s that. The best part about Germany? We each get two drinks at the tiny airport bar.
“Hey, Miller. Wanna grab a drink?” We’re taxying now and I feel motion sick sitting sideways. I pop another pill.
“No, thanks. I’m gonna read for a bit. Maybe sleep.”
“Your nose has been in that book for three months, and you have the whole fucking Atlantic to crash. Come get a beer. You’ll feel better being with the guys, letting off some steam.”
“I kinda want to be alone right now. Thanks, though.”
“Fine. Fuck it, you know where we’ll be.” I think about asking him for his drink tickets, but he’s being so fucking weird, it’s not worth the hassle.
We don’t get to leave the terminal, which is probably good since we’re smelly as fuck, but we can toss ‘em back. Gunny is passing out drink tickets when the plane stops moving. “Two each,” he says, like we’re gonna be able to handle more than that right now anyways. Seven months without a drink and I’m gonna hit the floor after a couple G&Ts. I just want to get shitty so I can fall asleep on the way to Alaska. Then to California. Two more planes and a bus.
American soil again, won’t that be nice. I’m actually looking forward to seeing the girls again. I wonder, though, if Sarah will be at the homecoming. My stomach flips a little when I think about her—tan from running outside in JT Park, sports bra peeking out from her work-out top. Looking up at me from under those lashes. Maybe a wink. Jesus. I’m half-hard thinking about it. I need to get my head straight. Twenty hours till home. To Alex. Fuck. I walk to the front of the plane, put my arm around Benson, the resident Mormon in my squad.
“Yo, Benson. You’re not gonna use those drink tickets, are ya, buddy?” He pulls a headphone out of his ear, smiles—that shit-eating sheepish grin that makes him look like he’s ten—and hands his tickets over to me. “Whatcha listening to?” I ask him, trying to be polite. I really don’t give a fuck, but he was nice enough to ensure I won’t wake up till snow country.
“Something I picked up in Leatherneck,” he says, and pulls out from under my arm. “Have fun, Sergeant. Be safe.” Responsible to a fault, this kid.
“Will do, Benji, will do.” I look around, trying not to seem too pathetic, but I don’t want to drink alone. Too much has happened in the past two months, too much sand and blame and death I’m not ready to sift through. I know there’ll be plenty of time for that when I’m home. Plenty of need for that, too.
I catch Doc’s eyes and smile, holding up my four tickets. “One for you, Doc. Join me for ein bier?” I ask, because I have no clue how to say “gin and tonic” in German.
“Hells yes. Let’s do this. I’m ready to get fuuuucked uuuuup!” he shouts. Some of the guys look at him, most of them laugh because, shit, they’re lining up to do the same damn thing. Detox. Unwind. Chill the fuck out and hope to God we don’t try to strangle our wives when we get home.
I got the usual packages from the girls while I was over there—drawings and books and shit. Same stuff every time. I was glad to get them, don’t get me wrong, but there wasn’t any thought put into any of it. I didn’t read the books, used them to prop up my busted rack instead. They were the type of shit Alex reads, romances and happy endings. Fuck that. I only had walls for like three weeks out of the whole goddamn deployment, so where was I supposed to put up Bella’s art, Nora’s scribbles? But I got a few letters from Alex this time. She was trying, but we both kind of knew there wasn’t anything left to save. I stopped calling her after the injury. Couldn’t do the lies anymore. The last letter she sent just pissed me off.
I understand why you won’t talk to me, won’t open up. I know something happened over there that you aren’t willing to dive into over the phone, but at some point, you are going to have to. If not for me, then for the girls. They need their dad…
What the fuck? The girls had their dad. I just didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t sound like me covering up for killing Langford or blaming Alex for killing Chesty. I’m surprised she mentioned it, because she’s got to understand by now I won’t talk about anything that went on over here. I wasn’t going to be guilted into telling her my sob stories so she could judge me too. Bitch.
I was sitting on my rack, ready to push out on another mission, pissed and hot and covered in fucking sand from my last ride. I tore up that letter and took the one from Sarah out of my cammie blouse, careful not to tear it along the edges where it was wearing thin.
Miller shows up at the bar and asks to borrow my lighter, so I tell him where it is, in my blouse. He comes back a few minutes later, beet red, and shoves me.
“What the fuck?” My drink spills and I look at him like he’s got one chance to explain himself or it’s fucking on.
“I could ask you the same thing, Conner.”
“That’s Staff Sergeant Conner to you, Miller. Don’t you fucking forget I outrank you. You’re not outta the Corps yet.”
“What is this?” He’s holding Sarah’s letter. Fuck me.
“None of your goddamn business, that’s what.” Dammit, why didn’t I just throw that letter out? I need another drink.
“This is from my girlfriend. How the hell did you get this?” The way he says “my” makes my skin crawl. Doesn’t he get it? She’s long gone.
“She’s not your girlfriend anymore, brother. C’mon, let me buy you a drink.”
“Screw you, Conner. You are the most worthless fuck here. You’re worse than Hill. At least he didn’t kill one of his brothers.” I don’t even know I am on top of him before I am. I hit him once, in the nose, and one squirt of blood comes out, lands on the ground in front of me in a splatter. He stumbles back a little and the bar goes quiet. Miller’s eyes are huge. He throws the letter to the ground, but it takes forever to get there, just floating between us until he walks away towards his shit at the window. When I know Miller can’t see me, I grab the letter and tuck it in my back pocket. I turn back to the bar and Doc hands me a drink. It’s whiskey, which I don’t do, but I don’t give a fuck anymore. I toss it back and ask for another, plus ice for my fist that’s all kinds of lit up. Use the next one to slip another pill under my tongue when no one’s looking.
So it turns out that I have truckloads of follow-through when it comes to drinking. I don’t do that shit halfway, and by the time we go to get back on the plane, I am stumbling, muttering profanity as I knock my shoulder into every goddamned seat on the way to mine.
We’re on a civilian flight this leg, and those of us that aren’t tanked are trying to bribe the flight attendants for either a lap dance or a shot of something they can hide in their cammies. The flight attendants are cute, those of them that are female and under sixty, but I’m too tired to get my balls busted by Gunny for trying to cop a feel. Under different circumstances, maybe it’d be worth it, but right now I just want to pass the hell out.
When I get to my seat, way in the back of the motherfucking plane, for Christ’s sake, I see Miller across the aisle. He’s reading that Gunslinger book again and it looks like the cover’s about to fall off. He looks up and I nod to him. His left eye is swollen and his nose is blue-black. He just puts it back in the book like he doesn’t see me. Fine. Fuck him.
I’m sitting next to Doc, who somehow got three extra drink tickets and did back-to-back shots of Crown. His head’s in between his knees and I kick him in the boot.
“You throw up on me and you’re grassed,” I tell him.
“Uuuuggghhhh.” Right. Stupid fucker.
I close my eyes and wait for takeoff, which I never feel. I am out cold before the safety brief.
I wake up to someone shoving my shoulder, which is bruised from stumbling on the plane before takeoff.
“Christ, what?” I ask, before I open my eyes.
“Get the fuck off the plane, Sergeant.” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It’s Gunny and he looks amused, which is never a good thing. Man is a sadistic prick.
“Sorry, Gunny, thought you were Doc.”
“I said, get the fuck off the plane.”
“Yes, Gunny. On it.” I grab my duffle and sling it over my good shoulder, careful not to take out Gunny because I know pushups would fuck me up right now. I still have a good buzz on.
When we get out into the terminal, we aren’t allowed to drink this time. Too many of us got wasted and puked on the flight here. No shit. What did the CO think was gonna happen when he let 300 Marines loose in a bar after seven months of sobriety and getting shot at? Sometimes, I swear, the stupid outranks the sane in the new and improved Corps.
I decide to brush my teeth because I taste like ass after drinking beer and eating whatever mustard shit they had for the pretzels in Germany. I can’t stand myself, so I know I’ll bowl over Alex when I see her.
I see Miller in the men’s head and want to fix things after sucker-punching him, though I’m not sure what good it will do. Maybe ask if he’s heard from Sarah, if she’s rethought leaving, but he won’t meet my eye. What a squirrely fucking dude he’s turning out to be. I think about the homecoming, all the families there in their best red, white and blue, flags and balloons and shit. I get that the only reason I’m into Sarah is because she had the guts to leave this shitty life, but it doesn’t stop the other part of me that wishes she will be there. I imagine her, arms outstretched for me, not Miller, but know deeper down than my libido that if she was really in front of me, she’d be just like Alex, unforgivable for staying. The wives will be dressed up, those who aren’t towing six kids behind them at least. The girlfriends in short skirts and no panties, I know because that used to be Alex. Not anymore. She’ll do her hair and makeup, but that’s about it. We can’t fuck the minute I get home because we’ll have the girls. They’ll be so big now. I take a break from imagining Sarah in a tiny dress, her toned arms bare and still tan, to think about my daughters.
I’ve been messed up again since the explosion—angry and wondering if throwing Langford out of the way was the wrong thing to do—so I haven’t been good about calling them, any of them. Gunny comes in and looks at my reflection in the mirror. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. His eyes tell me to hurry the fuck up, we’re wheels up for home. Home. I hope I don’t see Sarah there, that she is the only one with a clue, that she’s long gone from this world where no one really gets out alive.
I spit in the sink and watch the toothpaste disappear down the drain. A sink, a real fucking sink where I can open up the tap and shave if I want to, don’t have to dry fuck my cheeks in the desert anymore. It feels good, just knowing that.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)