“All of this,” he said as he swirled the air between us with his hand, a cigarette bracketed between two fingers, “is a matter of perspective.” He brought the cigarette to his mouth after that and pulled on it as he looked back at me. The ember glowed. He blew out the smoke and continued watching me, proud of what he had said but waiting for my validation nonetheless.
“Sure,” I replied.
“You over there, looking this way, and me over here,” he went on, pausing there for effect, “watching you.”
I wasn’t listening, though. Well, not really. I was too busy thinking to myself that he looked like me and talked like I talked.
There he was, smiling, looking back at me, still smoking.
“I’m you, but I’m not,” he said. “A passing reflection in window glass, that’s all.”
I watched as he looked himself over, running gloved hands over the ballistic vest and over all the pouches attached to it. Tan, brown, olive green. He opened his mouth and stretched his jaw, cocking it to the side and then closing it again. That dirty chin strap, once black and clean, now frosted with white ribbons of dried sweat. The helmet on his head, just a few centimeters off center. Enough for me to notice from where I stood.
He patted his shirt sleeves with a smile and his fingers over the embroidered brown stripes. “They don’t even wear these anymore.”
I smiled back. “DCU’s.”
“Fuckin’ DCU’s.” He caught me looking at his boots. “The shit they’ve stepped in, huh?”
I barely even remember him, but he’s always there. I mean, I remember him, but usually in still-frame photographs. There aren’t many pictures of him over there, though. He wasn’t big on pictures then. I remember him telling his troops that, “This ain’t a damn vacation” whenever they took out their cameras and snapped off a few.
I can still hear him say that.
Then I remember that I’m hearing myself.
No, there aren’t two people in my head – no multiple personalities or anything like that. It’s a part of me I had to kill, or at least try to neglect to death. Not sure I did a good job anymore, though, because he’s back now.
I’ve tried to write this a hundred times over the past few months and have failed time and again, barely getting a sentence typed before muttering, “Aw, fuggit!” and moving on to something else. But like I, or rather a part of me, said, this is about perspective.
I’ve only been able to see the world through my own eyes; only able to filter stimuli through my own prejudices. But the world I’ve seen has been filtered before it even got that far. The best way I’ve thought to articulate this is to say that, for me, the world has been filtered through two windshields.
One for home.
One for over there.
CONUS and OCONUS. In some sick way, they both feel like home.
Home and… other home.
I drive down the road now and take note of the roadside trash. I used to ignore it, long before any deployments. “Meh, more litter,” I would say. “People suck.”
But that other part of me learned that litter can kill you. “No, people REALLY FUCKIN’ SUCK,” he’d say. Over there, litter isn’t just litter; it’s a place to hide things. You have to examine it as best you can from behind the glass of a moving vehicle. They hid bombs in the roadside trash. You remember your training, though. You know what to look for.
But your training didn’t really prepare you for a world where there was so much trash it obscured the curb. And, speaking of curbs, you had to check those, too. They would make false sections of concrete to hide their IEDs.
Or they buried them.
Or hid them in dead animals.
Or broken down cars.
Or moving cars.
Or on people.
I remember the first few months after I came home, while that other part was still in the majority, and he made driving a pain in the ass. He kept pointing shit out everywhere we went. Overpasses, cars that rode low on their suspensions… everything on the shoulders.
Then he would say, “It’s only a matter of time before it happens here.”
I don’t have the same mindset when driving anymore. That was a long time ago now. But I haven’t forgotten it, either.
When he went over there for the first time he sat in towers on base and rotted away for four months. He called it a “waste” of what he thought was a finely tuned killing machine. He got to go drive around outside the wire for the last six weeks of that trip, but it wasn’t enough. Just an appetizer. The kiddie ride. He wanted the roller coas– no.
He wanted the fucking base jump without a parachute.
Or so he thought.
A year later he went to Baghdad, and that’s when he killed me. I’m too sentimental, too much of a hopeless romantic and too idealistic to be combat effective. See, I was there for all the other stuff. Base jumping sounded fun to me. I liked the idea of going over there and “making a difference” or whatever. But that wasn’t the reality. It was kill or be killed; kill or get your team killed. No room for dreamers. I needed to die for a while. So, he shut me out.
We wouldn’t have survived without that.
And he would keep saying that it wasn’t a big deal. He’d say, “I didn’t send us here, but I heard they were sending somebody so I volunteered.” This was a true statement. It was black and white for him. For me, I kept trying to read between the lines and find something gray, as if the gray matter was somehow prophetic. As if the gray stuff would Magic 8-Ball me into a calmer state of mind.
“Fuck all that,” he’d say. “You gotta be a stone.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Fine. Let me pretend for a while then,” he’d say.
These weren’t real conversations that some guy had with two voices in his head while sitting in traffic with his pants around the ankles or whatever. This was me, afraid, trying to rationalize the ambiguity of “tomorrow” in a world which contradicted nearly everything I thought I knew about human beings.
I had to kill the part of me that couldn’t handle the realities over there. And when I came home, I had to kill the frigid, calculating, darker personality that had become such a comfortable skin for such a short but immensely impactful time.
I can only speak for myself and testify to the explosions I’ve seen, the rockets I’ve heard whirring past overhead, the dead bodies, the pieces of bodies, the coagulated puddles of dark goo that spill out of the body when it’s ripped apart, the smell of burning metals, fabrics, blood, flesh and hair all melding into one fragrance… I hardly saw anything compared to what many others saw. My experiences pale in comparison.
This is about perspective.
My perspective – the perspective of that person who looked and talked like me and saw some of the horrors of the world through another windshield – is why I feel sick to my stomach when I watch the news. It’s why I’m pissed at hearing some things and why I couldn’t give two shits about others.
It’s why I feel sick to my stomach when I read or watch news stories about Iraq’s deterioration. Are we just going to sit back and watch a genocide unfold as if it has nothing to do with us?
It’s why I don’t give a flying fuck about your “microaggressions.” Grow up.
It’s why I have no respect for any politician who talks about war but isn’t willing to get his or her own fucking hands dirty, or do the politically unpopular thing, no matter if it’s the right thing to do or not. You can’t stop psychopaths from butchering women and children by playing the blame game, you sorry sacks.
It’s why I struggled to sleep after coming back. I couldn’t close my eyes without playing highlight reels from nightmares.
It’s why I still can’t write this so that it communicates what I want it to say.
It’s why I don’t care what you think.
It’s why I want to go back.
But it’s also why I can’t…
It’s why I don’t know which part of me is saying those last three lines.
It’s why I see everything through one windshield today,
and why I know that if no one does it now, then someone will have to later.