This is from a novel-in-progress about cowardice. To me, cowardice is remaining within the shell of the self — it has nothing to do with battle. Azar Nafisi said at the heart of every book lies a choice, so my choice revolves around this topic. I’ll shut up now and let you read.
Real men don’t shake their babies! Glen Margery fondled his bald spot in the clinic’s lobby, avoiding the posters of tight-jawed airmen and their pink infants that plastered the wall across from him. Only the Air Force needed a PSA about throttling your kid; Marines didn’t crack like that. No, they handled their mission, any mission, with pride. At least the ones who never trampled the scarlet and gold to go clean missiles for the Army.
Got a problem? We’ll listen! Stupid to come in. Jersey therapy meant a smack in the face, and mom expected a kiss after. Glen scraped over the intake forms with a dying pen, which managed to use black ink, at least. Just not enough.
Thanks to the US government’s heartfelt investment, Heiwa Behavioral Health offered concrete walls and flimsy, waveform chairs made of plastic, which dug into Glen’s shoulders no matter how he angled himself. Add to that the bathhouse humidity, sweat drenching his armpits, and it felt like stewing in hell: even from his bunk to the BX, he got soaked walking the island. On postcards Okinawa City looked like paradise, but it was just a shithole with coconuts as far as he was concerned.
Have you ever used behavioral health services before?
He was actually here, filling out this garbage. Answer: No. He wanted to keep his job, thanks. Any moron knows to lie. Even though command had busted him from staff sergeant to PFC, he still wanted to run out his contract with minimal fuckup. He didn’t want to get med-boarded like some stunad who couldn’t hack it. Although what would he do back home? Fix cars? Glen had no talent for repairs.
History of mental illness? Physical?
Some type of brain tumor removed when he was seven. No sense putting that down. Cost his mom an impossible pile of money, she never let him forget. Still got stress headaches.
The pimply airman beside him hacked a generous sample of phlegm into his Kleenex. Glen shied as far away as possible from him without physically picking up his seat and moving. From under the guy’s chair a huntsman spider, brown and big around as a playing card, peeped out and skittered toward the reception desk. Bugs: surreptitiously, Glen pawed his bald spot.
He stomped to the front. Keep a lookout for that eight-legged monster.
“Those babies are everywhere,” said the tech behind the Plexiglas screen. “At least they’re not giant centipedes, right? It’s just down the hall, by the way. Private.”
He saw the look, the little flash that pegged him as an old guy in a young guy’s rank. I’m bad news, fine, get it out of your system. You don’t have to tell me how fucked up I am. But I iron my uniform—and crease it—when ninety-nine percent of these joes look like they slept in a ditch. I never saw any of them walking long-ops, they shouldn’t get excuses. I’m a grunt: 4th Battalion 1st Marines. The Army is my retirement.
“Dr. Tamashi’s down the hall, on the left there.”
No reply; don’t give him the satisfaction. The door was open so he shut it behind him and settled into another wave-chair in a cramped yellow room, which smelled like old paper and deodorant.
Dr. Tamashi was a black lady. Not Okinawan. Her body hid behind a glacé copper suit jacket. The dark, straightened hair to her shoulders reminded him of someone special.
“You mingle in with the tribe?” was his first question.
“Excuse me, Private?”
“Did you, uh, find yourself a man here?” He nodded toward her nameplate, as if sharing a joke. Caught the spark of unease in her eyes.
“My husband is from Okinawa, yes. But I want to hear about what brought you in today.”
Glen shifted sideways, his body diagonal in a way that could only make him feel uncomfortable. “You know those local guys all get diseases from hookers.”
The woman kept herself expertly still, like an honor guard counting to twenty-one. Her eyes were chill, hazel cinders in her head. “Are you speaking about my husband?”
“No, no I just mean. I mean I see them. They all sneak out and find their strange, just like the guys here. I don’t know what they get mad at us for.”
Tamashi set her pen on the lacquered desk and blinked, slowly, her face welcoming in its repose but also impassive, like her eyes wouldn’t let you through to her core. “Do you enjoy sex with prostitutes?”
“Naw. I like other things.”
She folded her hands into a prayer position. As if counting the degrees, she leaned forward until her chin rested against the gold tips of her fingers. “Such as?”
These doctors always great at killing time. I was fine with it too, in al-Anbar, he wanted to say. Nothing but sand-colored houses, a few shrubs; gully full of dust. Then a bomb chops your friend up into brisket, you could ship him home in a Pyrex dish.
“Been drinking more.”
“Been here for a year and a half. I was over at Fort Epps, before.”
Tamashi lowered her hands so they hovered just above the desk. “You’ve been drinking more than you wanted.”
“I did back home, too. Worse here.”
“Overseas can take a toll.”
“No shit. Ma’am. In Iraq, in ’06, they’d just mortar the hell out of your dinky building. That wasn’t hard, you just took it. But sitting here … ”
“Reaching out isn’t easy. It’s brave, no matter what your squadmates say.”
“I been shot at, blown up. Got hit by a Jeep once.”
“That sounds harder than I can imagine.”
“Yeah, but it had a point, right? Kill Mohammad. This is just fucking around, cooped up where everyone’s too polite to curse but they flip you the bird as soon as you turn around. At least in Fallujah they had the balls to spit in your face if they didn’t like you.”
Tamashi nodded with the start of a genuine smile: white, blamelessly white teeth. “Cultural differences are frustrating.”
“As hell, ma’am. Excuse me. They are, and I don’t know if that’s it, if that’s why I’m this way, or what, but I can’t take it.”
“If you’re this way?”
“You know, drinking. I don’t know. What do you tell someone like me?”
The woman pressed herself snugly into her chair and fixed him with a level gaze. Looking back at her, dead-on, Glen detected how broad in the shoulder she really was, never mind the coat. Handle herself in a fight.
“What would you tell yourself?” said Tamashi.
“The hell is that? I’d say, ‘Go ask the damn doctor.’ ”
Dana signaled to him with a pop of her eyebrow, as if to prove she was human, too, not some droid with the proper psychology training. “Just humor me, Glen. I’m only here to help.”
He felt himself turning pink like one of those babies on the wall posters outside. “Well, shit. Help for me is your medical opinion, or whatnot.”
“I understand. And I want to know, what’s yours on the issue?”
Glen touched the back of his head. Was she spinning this bullshit on purpose? “On what issue? I don’t know what you mean. You’re just asking me what I came here to ask you, right?”
She bugged her eyes, off-guard for a moment, and he stifled the laugh that came welling up.
“On the, uh, drinking,” she said.
“Right.” Now he was comfortable. He sagged into his chair, laced all ten fingers together like he decided who was healthy and who was infected. Plus that other girl was beautiful, much better than the doctor. “I’d say stop it.”
Back straight in her fake-leather conference seat, Tamashi answered with silence. Trying to knock his balance, establish dominance. He squeezed the thin metal armrest while she breathed in deliberate streams, out and in.
“What steps did you take to quit?” she said at last: victory.
“Uh, zero, ma’am. Once I tried the Twelve Steps, AA, after I left the Marines. But it didn’t really do shit.”
He shrugged, regarding her with sluggish, half-lidded eyes. “I didn’t change any. Sit in a circle. I joined the Army.”
“You thought it might help you.”
“It’s a job. I clean fucking missile trucks, I don’t snuggle up with my M-16 to my lips like I used to. Back then I shot people. Once in a while people shot back, but usually they just ran like pussies. What can I say, I won.”
“You came out alive.”
“Damn straight. I’d go again if I could. I put in for another round, but with the way things are going, I’m not hopeful. All this peace shit.”
“You’re not hopeful to go back.”
“Yeah, aren’t you listening, even?”
His tone hurt her morale, which made him feel like cackling, except he flinched when he saw the quiet tightening of her jaw, a signal of pain. What did he want, crawling in like this?
“I’m just trying to understand, Private Margery.”
“Aren’t you supposed to, already? You’re the professional.”
She spread out her hands and stared at him frankly in a way that made him skittish, Mom’s inadequate kid. “We’re all just here trying.”
Glen smiled because he’d seen death, had made it happen, because that stasis he’d found through shooting a man had drifted back to let him dig up his heart and fill it with intimacy he couldn’t hope to explain to a civilian, or a pogue, even. “That would’ve got you sniped with an SKS, Russian carbine. Or a Mosin-Nagant, and they’re a hundred years old. You do or you’re a Maxi-stain in the sand, know what I mean?”
“Life is dangerous.”
“Life is hell—ma’am.”
“And the drinking’s made it worse.”
He screwed up his eyes. He burped, pretty politely, into his hand. “Worse than hell. Huh. I don’t know. I don’t know, I guess. You got any kids?”
Tamashi shook her head.
“I have two with the ex. When I see them you’re supposed to be happy, but they’re just little shits. I don’t know what they want. What the hell do you do with two kids? People here have two, three, a hundred kids, and they look happy as pigs in trash. What about me?”
“You feel differently.”
“I feel like beating my kids to death with a rock.”
Tamashi nodded and clasped her hands, elbows slowly grinding into the desk, yet concealed by the sleeves of her coat. Glen stared her in the eyes and found deep, receptive blackness, where before some screen or armor had blocked him.
“Children are pains in the ass.”
“I just feel like beating the hell out of them. I never hit them, though. I could always say that. No matter what else I did. I did a lot.”
“You can be proud of that.”
He looked at his thumbs. Supposed to mark us as human, but all they do is make it easier to jam our hands where they don’t belong. He wanted to cry; held it down.
“I’d be proud if I was fuckin’ dead.”
“Do you wish you were?”
Glen sucked his teeth. He forced the grief into his belly like he’d choked down a spiky conch shell. “No, I guess not. I’m not going to stick a knife in my neck, if that’s what you mean. Too coward. There was one guy tried to off himself in School of Infantry, blew out half his teeth and went blind in one eye. He was a fucking private. What do you do then? You don’t have a GI bill. I bet he’s in a tower somewhere ringing a bell. Jesus.”
“You don’t look to killing yourself as a solution.”
“See, ma’am, I don’t see solutions. My mom, she talked about the Judgment a lot. She’d turn the water on—cold, sometimes she’d throw in ice cubes just to piss me off—and then stick me in the bath and crack me upside the head with a wet towel when I fucked up. I always thought it was funny. She’d say something like, ‘Got to cool off that devil in there! That devil’s just running through your blood!’ I’d laugh in her face, and she’d beat the living crap out of me. That’s my problem, I guess. I’m rotten.”
“The way you say it, you sound hopeless about changing.”
He laughed again, eager now for a cigarette. “Sure, why not.”
Tamashi folded one hand over the other. She smiled in empathy, which he hated. “It’s tough to feel there’s nothing to look forward to.”
“Well, I didn’t say that.” Glen bit his lip. Pink knapsack, plump legs. Eyes wide and bright with that perfect joy. “I’m afraid I’m going to do something very bad.”
The doctor swallowed his fear with a trained look of caution that rendered her beautiful, as boldly and naturally attractive as her patient appeared unfortunate. “What do you mean?”
Glen forced his own smile into a frown, but realized they amounted to the same thing. Brief change in the status quo. He looked away and didn’t talk.