Rain beats down outside on la Rue de Clarke. It is a cold West Montréal night. Looking through the shades, I can barely make out the streets. Everything is black. It is a tenebrous world, like a Caravaggio painting.
5:10 a.m. I can’t sleep. I just returned from a café and I can’t sleep. It’s the bad coffee I’ve been drinking all night. I hate coffee. But I can’t sleep and it helps me to not sleep. I want to stay up for two days straight, so that I can’t think.
A week ago, I went to the Musée des Beaux-Arts à Montréal with Célimène. In a back room, the guards were not around. Cameras, maybe, but no guards. Looking at a Monet, I put a fingertip on her breast. Next I knew, she glided my hand down her pants, on the inside. The kissing started. Faux Water Lilies. Dabs of color lay side by side. A bench, a bed. We had sex in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. No one gets to have sex in a museum. But we did. Amidst all the dead painters, we made love. The French like to reenact the paintings; Americans just paint.
It may sound like I’m bragging, but trust me, my sex life isn’t anything to paint a mural about.
Célimène is only the third woman I’ve had sex with. The second without a condom. I’d sworn I’d never have sex without a condom again. But no condom dispensers are attached to Monet prints.
“Yeah, I was wanting to know information about AIDS.”
“OK. Is there anything in particular?”
“How do you know if you have it?”
“You need a test.”
“Are there any symptoms?”
“Not really. I mean, any symptoms that a person with AIDS may have are also symptoms someone who does not have AIDS might also have.”
“So the only way of knowing is by getting tested.”
“How ‘bout if you’ve already been tested, but you’ve had sex with someone since then who’s also been tested, but they’ve also slept with one other person since then. But that person’s been tested.”
“As soon as you have any unprotected sex, you have to start over again. It wipes the slate clean.”
“Oh. Well then, is there anything else you can think to tell me?”
“If you have any uncertainties, get tested.”
“One more thing, umm, where would you get tested? . . . Hello? Hello? Fuck.”
Fucked. I’m worried I’m fucked. Calm, serenitythat’s what I need to concentrate on, but when your balls are throbbing, there ain’t no time for that. Things were going so well too. AIDS test today. “Negative. Negative.” A mantra. “Négatif. Négatif.”
Célimène called. We get along, I love her, I’m happy to be with her, things could work out if this doesn’t get in the way and stamp its life-boots all over us, kill us, kill the hearts of the world, destroy us with madness, worry. It’s dangerous, this existence, this possibility of dying any second. From a mad postal worker or intercourse with your girlfriend. I’m really thinking I’m gonna die.
The last time I felt like this was in the Gulf. A helicopter was shot down outside the base. It hovered in the air, sparks flying, and through binoculars I watched some guy named Bill and his crew burn to a crisp. Fucking fascinating.
“Who’s in that chopper?”
“That’s Bill and his crew.” He paused, looked at me. “Ain’t it?” He looked back.
“Fuck. What happened?”
“I dunno. They got caught up in the wiring. Musta got shot down.”
“Fuck. They’re fucked.”
We got to watch. The chopper hung there. All these kid-soldiers in sweaty-armpit brown T-shirts watching, needing popcorn to cap things off. All the lights went out. We sat in the black and stared at that helicopter longer than you’d think people would. It stayed there, entangled.
I’m scared I’m going to die. I can’t believe I had unprotected sex again. I can’t believe I’d volunteer to go to Saudi Arabia. If I’m going to die, I wish I would have died back there. I don’t want to be the heterosexual who has only three partners who ends up dying of AIDS. People who die of AIDS should have at least ten partners. Maybe eleven. They should have really lived it up before getting AIDS. I’m talking Turkish baths and hookers. Filipino massage parlors and orgies.
I mean, I can count mine on one hand!
I ain’t going out like this. I’ll commit suicide first.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it.”
“Have you made any plans to carry it out?”
“Not really. Just thought about it.”
“Are you feeling depressed?”
“A little. Yeah.”
“And why are you feeling depressed?”
“I don’t know . . . I guess, just . . . because the world sucks.”
“Yes, it can. But it’s always guaranteed to get better. All we need is someone to talk us through certain times.”
“Yeah, well, can I ask you a question?”
“Why is it . . . OK, I don’t even know how to word this . . . Why does life have to be so . . . empty?”
In Saudi, we used to sit around and talk more than I ever talked with my family in the eighteen years I lived with them. A war was going on and we would talk about basically nothing for hours. The Marines would talk about pussy in disturbing detail. I knew more about Staff Sergeant Asgaard’s girlfriend’s clitoris than I did about my own girlfriendactually ex-girlfriend. They’d talk about Madonna’s breasts and whether it would be cooler to have sex with her or Cher. Always they’d choose the one you wouldn’t expect them to choose. Like if the choice was between Samantha Fox or that skinny chick from The Shining, they’d choose the chick from The Shining. Just to be different.
“No way, man. She got them teeth like that.” The Marine would point to his teeth, which were as messed up as Shelley Duvall’s, “That shit turn me on. I’d like to fuck her teeth. I’d fuck her teeth like a bucking bronco and shit. No shit. I’d be all up in her big-ass woodchuck bicuspids. I’d be fuckin’ molars.”
“That mo’erfucka say, ‘Woodchuck bicuspids.’ That mo’erfucka crazy.”
Everyone would break into laughter, weak laughter. If you laughed too hard, the sand would blow into your lungs and you could taste death.
And the talk would go on and on. I’d stare at the huge vein in Senior Airman Pascoe’s forehead. It would throb as he talked about putting his two best friends in the
trunk of his car, sneaking them into a drive-in theater outside of Norfolk, Virginia, locking his keys in the car with it running. Both of his friends were trapped in the trunk for two hours, missing the first movie completely, while he walked home to get spare keys. His friend, who stayed behind, would occasionally bang on the trunk to make sure they weren’t overcome with exhaust from the tailpipe. He would laugh telling the story. He’d say, “Could you imagine if I’d’ve killed ‘em?” His huge vein would throb, a Grinch grin on his mug and a desert behind him, waiting. He would stay in Saudi after I left. I wouldn’t even say goodbye. I’d just leave. I didn’t know him and didn’t want to know him. I’d just stare in silence.
I’d look in Staff Sergeant Kulie’s eyes as he talked about his girlfriend getting hit by a drunk driver on US-41 while she was jogging. She still couldn’t talk. They were going to get married. Now they weren’t. Kulie would look out across the sand, seeing a memory of her in a flower-filled room on the fourth floor in Marquette County Hospital. I’d look in his eyes, see how they were wet and then quickly look away, into the dry sand, the opposite of eyes. The sand would be in the background every time we talked. Always sand. You’d shake out your boots before you put them on, not only to get the sand out, but to make sure there were no scorpions inside. When the others would look at me to say something, I’d look down at my boots. I’d kick at the ground until someone else started talking, making up a story about how they could have played college football, “University of California at Berkeley was lookin’ at me. Punt-return specialist.” I didn’t share one detail of my life. I was afraid to form some kind of community with these people. I wanted to stand apart. I wanted to leave. As soon as I got there, I wanted to leave. Even though I knew I wouldn’t die. I’d think of myself as the crazy officer that Robert Duvall played in Apocalypse Now. A silent version of that loony fucker. I knew not to open my mouth, because silent soldiers never die. It was the ones you liked that did. It was the ones who had stories that died. They were speaking their own eulogies, their lives flashing before their eyes in words. I knew I wouldn’t die in Saudi. Because I was a no one there, invisible. I knew I would die later. I knew I was going to die in some other less respectable way, like in a car crash while on a road trip to Elko NV to visit José at the reservation. Or in a nursing home at 82 with my grandchildren five states away playing tennis while drinking Michelob and smoking pot and listening to that goddamn ska music. Or like my dad did, collapsing of a heart attack at a birthday party for some stranger he knew through a friend of a friend of a friend.
In a way, I would have preferred to die any other way than the humiliating ways most Americans die. I wanted to die in a foxhole. I wanted to die like Rambo. That was why I joined the military. To go to war. I would have preferred to be killed by a land mine in an Iraqi bunker on the last day of the war like Army Sergeant Russell G. Smith, Jr., 44, of Fall River, Massachusetts, father of four. I would have preferred to be killed on February 27th in the rescue attempt of a downed Air Force pilot like Army Sergeant Roger Brilinski, 24, of Ossineke, Michigan. I would have preferred to be killed in a helicopter accident in the northeastern region of Saudi Arabia with a handful of Marines looking through binoculars repeating, “Fuck, look at that” and other trite, meaningless phrases.
Almost any death would be better than dying of AIDS.
“Who is this?”
“My name’s James. You don’t know me. I’m a . . . stranger. I just wanted to talk.”
“Is this Frank?”
“No, I’m serious, my name’s James. I . . . I’m a stranger and I called your number at random. Have you read The Celestine Prophecy? I got this vision that I should call a number at random and talk to that person. And I was hoping that, maybe they, you, could help me. Out. And tell me something, I dunno, meaningful.”
“No, wait, I wanted. Someone to talk to . . . Hello. Hello?”
6:58 a.m. I haven’t slept since 1:00 p.m., Saturday. Today is Monday. I feel sick to my stomach. I wonder if it’s the AIDS or the coffee. I had a lot of coffee. I don’t have AIDS. I made a list repeating, “I DON’T HAVE AIDS. I DON’T HAVE AIDS.” I did that from 6:15 to 6:30 a.m. It quickly got boring, so I started doing it in different languages. “J’AI LA SANTÉ! J’AI LA SANTÉ.” I didn’t know how to write, “I don’t have AIDS” grammatically correct in French, so I wrote, “I am healthy! I am healthy!”
I keep searching my body for those red splotches like in the movie Philadelphia. I wonder if that’s AIDS on Gorbachev’s forehead? I don’t find anything but an old scar on one of my wrists.
I’m going to find a place to get tested in an hour or so. I’ll wander around town until I find something. I think there’s a walk-in clinic on Sherbrooke Ave. Next to the porn shop. One of the many.
“How can I help you?”
“I was wondering if you give free AIDS tests. Anonymous AIDS tests.”
“I’m sorry, we give tests for HIV, but it costs sixty-five dollars.”
“Sixty-five dollars! Whoa.”
“Yeah, I know, it is a little expensive.”
“All I got is . . . forty-seven cents. Do you know anywhere that gives really cheap AIDS tests?”
“You know, you can go to the hospital on Saint Catherine and donate blood. That way you get tested for free. And do a good deed. Plus they check you for hep, everything. Do a complete test of your blood.”
“Good idea! God, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Yeah. And if you give marrow, you might even be able to make a couple bucks.”
“Cool. Then I can get something to eat.”
Fifty cent tacos.
There are moments, brief flashes, where life is so ugly that it’s beautiful, and other times where it’s so beautiful that it’s spiritual.
Intensely red New Mexico skies the color of apocalyptic blood.
In tenth grade Advanced Biology Class, the careful dissection of a cow’s eye and then holding the slippery separated lens to view the blurry kaleidoscopic effect of your 28-year-old teacher leaning over to assist Kirk Rytkonen.
And the bright, bright stained glass windows in small restored homes tucked away in corners of Muharraqthe sun in Bahrain, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Illinois, desert blinded, and when its rays hit those intricately carved stained glass pieces, the effect . . . My eyeswatered; my insidescaved.
“This is my first time.”
“Well, there are some forms you’ll have to fill out . . . For now, read this.”
“It tells you about the process.”
“There’s a process?”
“To giving blood?”
“I thought you just give blood.”
“There’re certain things we need to know.”
“Like if you’ve been to Chad or Nigeria. If you have brain hemorrhages, anemia. If you’re recently returned from a country with Mad Cow Disease. Things like that.”
“Whoa, what’s this? It’ll take ten minutes to do it?”
“Yes. Seven to fifteen minutes usually.”
“To take out blood?”
“Why so long?”
“We take about a pint.”
“A pint? God, do you have to give so much?”
“Well, that’s standard.”
“Can I give half a pint?”
“That’s not procedure. The procedure is we take out approximately a pint of blood. It takes about seven to fifteen minutes.”
“Can I do it for just a minute?”
“That wouldn’t be a pint.”
“I bleed fast.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“I’ve never done this before.”
“Yes, I know. But are you ready? Because if you’re not ready, you can always come back. We don’t try to force this on anybody.”
“I think I’m gonna have to do that.”
“The procedure really isn’t that bad.”
“I don’t think I can do it. I hate needles.”
Célimène’s door is unlocked. I walk inside. She is doing laundry, her uniform. I startle her. She just got off work. PFK. That’s French for Kentucky Fried Chicken. She looks incredible. She always looks beautiful. We speak French. The words come out of her mouth like diamonds. En quoi puis-je t’aider? She smiles. My whole body beats at the sight of her. She wears blue sweat pants. Her hair is uncombed. It falls in front of her eyes. She shakes her head and blows it out of the way. She leans over to get something, looking up at me. Her eyelashes flash. Her mouth smiles gently again. She touches me. I kiss her. She has a sweater in her hand. She holds it against me. I kiss harder. I want her. I always want her. She presses her body against mine. I am hard. I stretch the elastic band of her sweat pants. She has nothing on underneath. She drops the sweater. She looks haggard in the morning air, carelessly perfect. We kiss harder. She’s wet. She unzips my pants. We make love. I have no condom. Again.
“Get the fuck out of here!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You had sex with a guy who had AIDS?”
“I loved him.”
“Jesus Christ, dude. I love Célimène, but if she told me she had AIDS, I wouldn’t even kiss her.”
“Well, it was a decision I had to make, and I made it.”
“Didn’t it worry you?”
“Of course it did. That’s eventually what caused us to break up.”
“You couldn’t handle it?”
“No, he couldn’t. He was so afraid he was going to give me AIDS that he refused to be intimate. And things just fell apart.”
“God, I can’t even imagine that . . . But you had sex with him?”
“Jesus Christ! You don’t have unprotected sex once with a goddamn person with HIV. You have unprotected sex never with a person who has HIV. Dude, I’m gonna go get tested and let me tell you something, if I test positive, I’m gonna come back and kill you.”
“Because you had anal sex with an HIV positive person and you didn’t get AIDS! If you luck out that hard core and I end up getting it from a girl who’s been tested, I’m gonna be pissed.”
“She’s québécoise, right? Not anglophone?”
“Well, she’s bi-.”
“Lingual! But yeah, she’s québécoise. Listen to her name: Célimène.”
“If she’s French, you better get tested.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“French women are promiscuous.”
“Listen to you, gay as Nathan Lane and telling me about women.”
“Hey, French men are just as promiscuous . . . You know, you really should be wearing a condom.”
“I’d like to. But there’s no feeling. It’s like I’m putting on a tourniquet. It goes limp and then I’m, like, embarrassed. It’s easiest to just go solo.”
“You mean masturbate?”
“No! Well, yeah. But, no, I mean go without a condom.”
“Why don’t you try sheepskin? That has more feeling.”
“Doesn’t that give less protection?”
“It’s better than nothing.”
“Well, you’re the one who’s gonna have to worry about whether or not he gets AIDS.”
“Look who’s talking.”
If you like roller coasters, you’ll love war. There’s free fireworks, you’re nauseous, and there is an incredible adrenalin rush where you swear that if you ever get out alive you will enjoy every single moment of your life from that point on. Then you go back to the States and have to cope with motherfuckers who can’t drive, and snow, and a girlfriend who expects you to have the intellect of a 35-year-old and the penis of a 17-year-old.
Americans refuse to fight in snow. Ever since the American Revolution where soldiers’ fingers were freezing and breaking off at Valley Forge, Americans swore to only fight in other countries and never again in the cold. We won’t declare war on Canada unless it’s summer. Vietnam, Saudigive us jungles and sand, a nice tropical climate. We might as well get a tan and make a vacation out of it. My grandpa had to make reservations for Pearl Harbor.
“I could never be in the military.”
“For one thing, they don’t allow homosexuals.”
“Which I’ve never been able to understand. I mean, the only time anyone ever saw me naked was in boot camp . . . Although there was this other time. We were just outside of King Khalid. There was this officer, Lt. Hansen, and he was Psych. I was out of rank, placed on Security. We’re in MOPP level 4, full gear: mask, hood, gloves, all that. And Intel isn’t letting us know if it’s clear so we can get outta this equipment. It’s hot. In the sun, with all that on, it’s painful. Sweat dripping constantly in your mouth. And this Psych officer starts freaking out, claustrophobic. Says he can’t take it any more, starts taking his gear off. Well, word gets to the C.O. who orders him to keep his gear on and he still keeps taking the mask off. The C.O. grabs Lieutenant Hansen and Security comes over and they struggle with him. Hansen’s bitching, yelling, but they threaten to tranquilize him and he calms down. They decide somebody needs to be put on watch, guarding him. Who do they pick? Me. I’m supposed to stand there and make sure he doesn’t take his mask off. That’s my whole job. It’s a good ninety plus degrees out and the C.O. tells me to make sure I keep taking sips out of my canteen so I don’t pass out from heatstroke, pats me on the shoulder and is gone. Now it should be added that they took me off my Med Tech job for incompetence, for not paying attention to my 601 tags, labeling them correctly. Military policytake a person fouling up one job and put him in another with even more responsibility. For me, that’s Security. So I start daydreaming. Thinking about how hot it is, about how I’d prefer a chocolate shake from McDonald’s to lukewarm canteen water, about how much I have to piss. They don’t tell you that when you’re in MOPP gear, there’s no way to piss. The Gulf War is the first time using this equipment and they didn’t factor in that you might have to wear your gear for hours, even days. A good half hour goes by, when I turn around to see that Hansen has his mask off. I run over and try to force it back on. He raises his voice, which I don’t want him to do, because I don’t want the C.O. finding out. So I lower mine and he says, ‘Listen, I’ve had it off a good five minutes now and if there was any nerve agents out there, I’d be either convulsing or unconscious by now.’ He’s right. So I’m watching him, admiring that he can wipe the sweat off his forehead and breathe fresh air. It’s been hours since the last attack occurred, so maybe he’s right. So I do it. I undo all the infinite zippers and straps and I piss this stream that was more golden than the sand, a long arc the size of St. Louis. And it’s pure bliss. Then I shook, he took one last breath of fresh air, I zipped back up, and he slipped the mask over his face. And the C.O. never found out.”
“When you talk about the Navy, it seems like you liked it.”
“No! Hell no. No way.”
In boot camp, a bunch of Navy Seals come in to take your blood and give shots. Their rating is Med Tech, but they are also Seals. All of the recruits are still in civilian clothes, having just arrived, so the Seals take great care to harass the shit out of you. One kept fumbling with the needle, saying, “I hope you guys aren’t afraid of blood, because I’ve never done this before.” They started taking blood from both sides of the alphabetical line, working their way to the middle. Andersen went first at one end and Zalinski went on the other. They were making their way to Maliwicki. Beside me was Rose. Rose was going for nuke. Nuclear techs require the highest ASVAB scores.
The first night, Rose established himself as a fuck-up. He left his key in his locker; this is an offense similar to murder in the civilian world. Everyone has their key on a chain around their neck and you are never allowed to take that chain off. This way, every time you go to your locker, you have to bend uncomfortably to open it. If your locker is on the bottom, directly on the floor, you have to get down on your knees and put your ear to the ground in order to open it. Rose’s locker was like this. Rather than bend over, he took the chain off his neck and left the key in the lock. Rose then took a shower. The Company Commander found the key in the lock. The C.C. tore into Rose, leaving him in pushup position for a half hour. His arms were shaking like an epileptic and some of the recruits laughed at him. I didn’t. I knew that could be me at any moment.
If you’re a nuke, they take more blood. The Seals yelled that. “If you’re a nuke, let us know, we need more blood from you guys! If you’re a nuke and you don’t tell us, we’re gonna have to call you back in here. And that will piss us off!” Rose was a nuke. The Seal approached him, a gangly smile on his face.
Rose confessed, his voice cracking.
“We got a nuke here!” the Seal shouted out and stabbed the needle into Rose’s arm. Rose wasn’t looking. He was staring up at the Seal’s grinning teeth and missed the fact that a needle was coming down between his bicep and triceps. Rose flexed both. The Seal jammed it in, as if it were a knife into a block of wood. Rose reacted to the poke like a dumb nuke and yanked his arm away. He wasn’t thinking. The needle broke off in his skin. I turned to see Rose’s face. His eyes met mine briefly. He looked stupid. His mouth was agape and a hollow sound came out. He dropped to the ground. I'm still not sure why he dropped like that. It didn’t help anything. I’m sure he could have kept himself standing. It was his arm that was gushing blood, not his leg. But like the reflex of pulling his arm away, his legs decided to buckle on their own and Rose fell like a corpse, gripping his arm, his teeth chattering, looking like a newborn baby, in stillborn fetus position. The Seals didn’t react like Med Techs. They reacted like Seals. “You fuckin’ idiot! You fuckin’ idiot!”
“This fucking idiot pulled his arm away. What are you doing!”
They hauled him off. It was quick. One second Rose was there on the floor, his big thick stupid head full of blank tears and a tiny chunk out of his arm. Then he was gone. I’d never seen anything like it.
And I was next. The Seal was all fake kind to me. He said, “You’re not gonna faint on me, now are you?”
I wondered, later, if the Seals did that on purpose. If the Seals knew how important it was for the games to end. Us, in our civilian clothing with bright blue and red colors, colors we would soon box up and ship home, slipping notes in our sneakers saying “I hate it here,” still thinking we were people, individuals, still laughing inside and they could feel it. We weren’t taking it seriously yet. The Company Commanders would yell, but it was kind of like dad yelling. You’d wish he’d shut up, but then again it was comical. His face would get all intense and he’d look like a caricature, a cartoon figure, an adult from Ren & Stimpy. You wanted to laugh, but you couldn’t. Holding back the laughter made you want to laugh more. The Seals wanted to make sure that ended. So they jabbed into Rose’s arm, a carefully selected sacrifice, and he pulled away, leaving smeared blood on the floor. And one less nuke.
Boot camp gets you ready for war. Everyone knows funerals, but most people don’t get to see the kicking painful side of dying and being wounded. Rose’s face was in raw pain. That’s what war is. There’s nothing funny about it. There’s nothing good about it. There’s nothing worthwhile about it. It just is.
“Can I . . . umm, I was wondering if it would be OK if you lent me sixty-five dollars.”
“Sixty-five dollars? For what?”
“It’s kinda private.”
“No! What made you say that?”
“I don’t know. What’s it for?”
“It’s private. It costs sixty-five dollars.”
“No! Not an abortion. Look, can you just lend me sixty-five bucks.”
Short pause. “You’re getting an HIV test.”
“How’d you guess that?”
“That’s what it is?”
“Yes, OK. That’s what it’s for. Now how the hell did you guess that?”
“Because you told me. Look, why don’t you donate blood at the hospital? It’s free.”
“Because they put a fucking needle in your arm for fifteen minutes. I’d vomit if they did that. I had a bad experience with needles. I just want to get tested for AIDS. I don’t want to go through . . . torture. So can I borrow sixty-five dollars?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Why didn’t you say that before?”
“Because then you wouldn’t have told me what it’s for.”
The lights of Saudi Arabia, seen from the air, at night, are beautiful. I remember flying in and seeing nothing but ocean forever, then suddenly two seconds of beach and, out of the plane window, nothing but sand for another eternity, until we arrived in Tent City and the intensity of its lights. Getting off the plane, a Lieutenant made sure that we had our dog tags. The wind was blowing sand in our teeth. I remember asking about the dog tags over the howl of a gust, “What do we need them for?”
Chewing sand, I listened to the reply: “For when you get shot!” Not if you get shot, but when you get shot. I hated Saudi already. I hated it and loved it. Like a girlfriend. Like a wife. Like a mother. Passionately ambivalent.
Saudi Arabia was eons of silence, using envelopes as stationary to write letters that would take months to arrive home while guys from your unit played flag football with a Nerf somebody’s dad sent. It was centuries of bullshit conversation in wind-shook tents with old teenagers wasting their sexual peak on magazines in latrines while, back home, nerdy, rich, young frat boys slept around with campus-screened AIDS-free virgins, wearing no protection.
When I would wear my MOPP gearbig, floppy, chemical and biological warfare suitsI couldn’t hear a thing. The wind would howl and if Red Flag alarms were going off, it would be deadened by a large MCU-2A/P Protective Mask. I’d fall into my own claustrophobic little world. Sometimes I’d sit and listen to my Darth Vader breath and think about throwing eggs at Halloween. I’d remember hitting a semi’s wind-shield from the bluff and the endless high-fives from Gus and Critter and Josh. I’d think about dancing to “Beth” with Stacie Swagart. She looked like Faith Hill with a weight problem. She was my first crush, one of those cheerleader-blondes that would go through her parents’ divorce and six hundred cigarettes by the time she was a senior. I kissed her on a log at summer camp near Lake Michigamee. Picturesque. Flares flew in the Saudi air and I would stand there and not be there. I’d think of Fourth of July in Forest Park, spread out on blankets, dad’s mustache wiggling as he said, “That was a good one,” while Marie, my little sister, commented, “I like the ones that look like willow trees.” I could detach myself completely. Sometimes I still do. I forget I’m alive.
I remember the first time I saw a mutilated body. The soldier’s head was caved-in. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a caved-in head. It looks exactly like a regular head, but it’s caved-in. Whatever happened to him happened about five hundred feet in front of me. I didn’t have to look, but when they carried him past, I forced myself. I followed each step of the gurney. He was still alive. He looked at me with the one eye that was pushed in his head. I thought of Quasimodo. I thought about how that couldn’t be fixed. A caved-in head cannot be fixed. I thought about the rest of his life. People were yelling or trying to yell. Someone had a megaphone; it made the words more distorted and robotic, surreal. What was I doing here? There were flares in the sky. Were they missiles? No, flares. Just flares. It was hot. In all the MOPP gear, the temperature felt like 110 degrees and probably was close to that. Sweat filled my mask. Salt was in my mouth and a taste of mask, rubber and charcoal. And sand. Hot sand. I tasted sweat, mask, grains of sand. Sweat and sand. There was a soldier with his head caved-in. I stood there as the flares came down and alarms went off. I stood there and wanted to grab an M-16 and put it to my own head, but I was too hot, too tired. I wanted silence. Real silence. Not the muffled non-existence of life in the vacuum of a gas mask. I wanted to pull the trigger of a gun that was pointed at my own head, but I wanted somebody else to go and get it for me. Noise. Any time it would get nice and silent, someone had to tell a story. I didn’t want to hear any more stories. I didn’t want any more of their shitty stories. I couldn’t believe I volunteered to be in Saudi Arabia. And I volunteered to look at that soldier’s head, to stare at it. I was a sickening human being. I
was someone who wanted to be there. I was someone who wanted to see people die. I was someone who actually had to hold back a laugh when I was staring at a helicopter caught up in electrical wiring, because it was morbidly funny. I wanted to laugh at the guy with the caved-in head. He looked at me with his fucking eye and I knew his life would be remembering these past few moments forever. I wanted to laugh. Cry. Scream. But I stood there in utter anarchy and watched, still, sickened. It put a core of nausea in my stomach. I hated life. I hated sand. I hated being Security. I hated the United States Air Force. I hated the United States Navy. I hated the United States Army. I hated the United States Marine Corps. I hated myself.
And in that hate, at night, I can’t sleep.
“Excusez-moi. Où est la chambre où . . . where I give blood?”
“Right here. You can speak English.”
“I’ve been trying to find you. I went down to surgery and they were like, ‘You’re not even in the right end of the building.’”
“No, you found us.”
“Are you ready to do this right now?”
“OK, have a seat . . . Place your arm like this. And, good, and then go like this.”
“You don’t like needles?”
“No, I can’t stand blood.”
“This won’t take but a second. We’re almost done already.”
“I thought it takes fifteen minutes.”
“No, it’ll be less than that. It goes by fast.”
“You know, I came by yesterday, but I chickened out.”
“Well, we’re glad you’re back. We appreciate people like yourself coming in here like this.”
“No problem. I like to help out.”
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a painter.”
“A painter. That’s great.”
“Well, sort of a painter.”
“What do you mean, ‘Sort of.’”
“I’ve never sold a painting.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll happen. You just have to think positive.”
“Don’t say that.”
I absolutely detest when someone asks me about Saudi Arabia. I hate to hear, “You mean you were there?” as if no one went to the goddamn place, as if it were a television show. There’s no way to ask me about the war without pissing me off. Sometimes the questions are asked naïvely, as if the person is getting a vicarious thrill from the mere word “war,” which makes you hate them. Sometimes they look at you as if they don’t believe you and you have to pull out part of an ear like it was goddamn Vietnam or you have to break down and tell them what a SCUD looks like in the air. They are so intrigued because they watched it on CNN, but you actually got to go there and it must have been so cool. You hate their guts for making you close your eyes and look back and see the boredom of waiting to die or waiting to remove your gas mask or waiting to change MOPP levels or waiting to leave. You watched ticker tape parades of reservists who came and went, were there, but went home to hug their wives. You’re unmarried. By the time you got home, everyone had forgotten about the war. Sometimes they look sad, and they don’t ask any more questions, because they don’t want to know that your job was to give the coordinates of Iraqi soldiers and that you probably helped kill hundreds of people. Sometimes they look sad, but they pretend like they’ve seen something too, because they have a cousin who does heroin or they drove through a bad neighborhood once. Sometimes they tell you that they were in the military too, but they didn’t go to Saudi because they were stationed in Adak, Alaska. Sometimes they want to know what it was like and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they laugh, not knowing you were there. Maybe you overhear a conversation at the college and they say something like, “That war was a joke” and you are filled with rage, because that person’s whole life has been nothing but an intellectualization and they know nothing about life and they have no right to use the words “joke” and “war” in the same sentence. They have no idea how much you want to laugh when your mind is aching with the pain of the possibility of dying from some invisible biological disease, a ghost of an enemy that can haunt you worse than any gunfire. You want to grab one of your autoinjector needles and jab it in some unknowing fuck’s arm and have him drop to the ground, kicking like a baby. Or you want to find the guy with the caved-in head nine years later and ask him what it’s like to have people give you odd looks in the grocery store, in the bank, in the restaurant, in the movie theater, in his own home, to always stand out, and for what? For your family? For your country? For your God?
“Jesus Christ! Je-sus fuc-king Christ! I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it.”
“Oh! Good news. Good news, man.”
“What? You win the lottery or something?”
“Better. I tested negative. Negative, negative, negative!”
When I want to celebrate, I get drunk in my room with a bottle of Merlot while listening to Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, and I paint, just unleash on the canvas. The alcohol eases things. It lets me release, relax. I paint and remember, to forget. Often I think of electrocuted helicopters, Staff Sergeant Asgaard’s girlfriend’s clitoris, and caved-in heads. I think about how much civilian life is full of combing your hair, worrying what other people think about you, and going to the doctor’s.
“Yeah, they hurt. Not all the time. But, like last night I was drinking wine in my room and writing and all of a sudden they started throbbing.”
“Well, let’s see ‘em . . .” The doctor, gloved, inspects. “Have you ever had unprotected sex?”
The doctor, gloved, looks up. “Was it worth it?” He looks back down.
He continues to talk casually. I find out he’s ex-military, retired. Suddenly I understand why he lacks tact.
“James, wake the fuck up!” “What?” “Get your gear on.” Alarm going off. Put on MOPP gear. Forget to shake your boots. Dress in under a minute. Skip loops on your belt. No socks. No time. Exit tent. Flares. Gunshots? Get down. What the . . . Teary eyed. Hit the deck. Sand in your fucking mouth. Spit. Put on mask. Can’t spit. Little crunchy grains. Taste Saudi. Dark. Can’t see through the mask. Storm clouds? Rain? In a desert? Cold now. Steamed glass from heavy breathing. Black. Horizon oil wells burn like several suns. Endless raging flames. Volcanoes of smoke. Hell. Running. Flares. Night. Sand. Wind. Flares. Shots. An imp. More shots. Weak shouts. Who they shooting at? Shouting at? No one but us. Enemy’s too far away. Shelling, definite shelling. To the East. Several Cobras. C-130s, somewhere, can’t find ‘em. Watch dumb. Stand, chem gear. Can’t see. Clouded. That lightning or flares or shells? SCUDS? You breathe awkward. Z for Zacharia. You read that in fifth grade, fourth? Mrs. Lehto. You could pass out. Tired. Guns. You don’t even care. So tired. Of life. You hope you die. So you can go back to sleep. Fucking sand Fucking Saudi was that an Iraqi or Kulie? Rub your eyes if you could. Night. Scan. A blur. Grunts. Wanted college money. Didn’t have enough money for college. You thought being a Medic sounded adventurous, heroic. Remember the little green army men you played with, the one that was down on one knee, holding the radio? You threw it on a fire, watched it melt. Guy runs by. Someone pushes you. Screams, instructions? Where you supposed to be? Get out the way. Hope a bullet comes right through your fucking brain Hope you die Instantly. Everything shuts off. Sweat, taste sand, stop thinking and look out at a night sky lit up with flares or missiles a fog of smoke and there are guns and people yell and you do not realize that for the rest of your life any time you close your eyes you will be able to envision this scene it doesn’t matter if it’s your wedding or your father’s funeral or you are putting the finishing touches on a seagull for a bright red Crystal Lake sunset watercolor, no matter where you are, you are able to close your eyes and you still see the jagged desert horizon and you do not know who the enemy is and you do not know who you are and this pervades every atom of your body. Dead. You are a dead man and so alive. The rest of your life, everything you say will be tales from a dead man. You will never fit in again. You will be unable to talk with people who are worried about bullshitgetting to 11 a.m. classes, about what Frank said about them behind their back, changing their Illinois driver’s license to Vermont, because only people with too much time on their hands and a clear memory are able to worry about nothing. You have died. Whether or not that bullet which zipped passed you was implanted in your head doesn’t matter, because you’ve seen God’s anger and once you’ve seen that, you fail to exist. From then on, there is no fear. There’s the vivid memory of a night sky with Americans shooting at Americans shooting at Americans in confusion in a war they created so that we can have our perpetual ‘Nam, our perpetual death, our perpetual war. You will drink Cherry Mogen David until you pass out in your room, covered in poetry. There is a book at your bedside with the title Poèmes d’amour des XIIIe siècle. You bought it four years ago and you’re finally starting to read it. There is a photo of Célimène at the Insectarium in Eastern Montréal. Annually, they cook up insects for the public to digest. At your urging, she has just eaten chocolate-covered grasshopper. She laughs with a sour look. Her face is light and angelic. You remember her saying you seem so innocent. There is another photo of you in the jungle in Diego Garcia and another by a C-5 in Bahrain and another with a Kuwaiti ship in the background. With a big smile, you hold your thumb up high. Your shirt is off. You are tan, 22, alive, thriving. Alone. You will have sex in museums with women you love and barely know. You will cry in her arms and tell her, “I am always going to love you” and you always will. You wish you were holding her right now. But instead you stopped having sex with her, refusing to be intimate. And things just fell apart. Because of things that you worried about that weren’t reality. Because Célimène didn’t have AIDS. And now she is a memory. And Saudi Arabia is only a memory and memory is only as real as you make it. You will leave Canada and join the military reserves and the next time a war breaks out, you will go, and you will die. And that is a reality. You always miss that which destroys you. That is your reality.
In the meantime, you will paint . . . And your painting will matter little.
“Have you ever heard of Gulf War Syndrome?” the doctor says.
You say, “No.”