There is among the men who earn the title of Marine a certain joy in self-destruction. I know; I was one of them. We were masochists. We thought of pain as a hammer that shaped us and molded us and it was how we defined ourselves. We never spoke of it in these words but we felt it all the same. In the absurd crucible of fire that was my time in the infantry, I enjoyed seeing parts of myself, parts I hated, destroyed.
I was young when I enlisted and I enlisted to escape my life of comfort. I wanted more than the world’s promises. I saw a nation of people so obsessed with money and success they became slaves to it. I saw weakness and arrogance and a disparity earned or unearned and I wanted no part of it. I wanted to prove myself. To rise above myself.
There is among us a shivering joy on the range or in combat when we slap magazines into our rifles and yank back on the charging handles and put the stocks to our shoulders and aim down the sight. A screaming, brutal, incredible joy. There is joy in being a monster. There is joy in dominance. There is joy in suicide.
It’s a humid spring night and we stand out on the balcony and watch the storm sweep in from the west. The trees rustle in the wind and lightning flares in the high reaches of the sky too distant for thunder. The clouds are thick and dark, their underbellies purple with city light. We’re wet now, our clothes soaked through, but we stand here anyway looking at the rain and not speaking. Him against the doorjamb, smoking. Me leaning with my arms on the wooden rail, leaning and staring out across the parking lot below where the streetlights stand in their swirling skirt of amber rain, where every reflection on the asphalt is long and bleary.
There is a small table between us and on it a bottle of rum. The bottle is half empty and the rain runs down the side like sweat and in each droplet a perfect and wall-eyed world. We are drunk. Drunk and thinking of times shared.
I’m looking out at the parked cars but my mind is a world distant and I smile and say, Do you remember our first drill?
Which one was that?
The mortar shoot. When it was so fuckin muddy, remember? We had to fuckin lay prone to look through the sights, dude.
He laughs there in the darkness. Yeah. When we had to seat the baseplates I took that facial. Fuckin mud from head to toe.
I turn and put my back to the rail and look at him. It was miserable, dude. Like the fucking worst drill you can imagine.
But it was fun. It was a fucking blast. I grab the bottle and drink and cough and set it back. You know. I can talk about it all fuckin day long to my friends but they don’t understand. They can’t. Like not even my fuckin girl.
My friend, who is recently divorced, who now sees his son every other weekend, who lives away from the house he lost, nods. Yeah. I know what you mean.
That drill up north, that nine driller when we were all slippin around and shit in the ice, us fucking busting our heads, you remember that one? Remember how fucking stupid that was?
End of that drill, Sunday I guess, I was sittin up in a humvee, shivering my balls off, miserable, fuckin terrible. But I was sittin there and the sun came out and for a minute I was happy. Happy, you know? Just that little bit of warmth. It was fuckin sublime. There’s like this fuckin feeling you get, like pride in pain. Like you’re so miserable for so long that normalcy is fuckin heaven. When people ask me what it was like, that’s what I tell them. But they still don’t understand.
They can’t, man.
No, I say. I guess they can’t.
He flicks his cigarette out into the dark and it spirals through the air and disappears over the balcony like a wayward firework. I think of flares fired from the mortar tube. Flares like false suns.
After a time he says, I’ll tell you something. When you’re over there home’s a dream, isn’t it?
Yeah, I say. Of course.
It’s all you can think about. You think when you get home you’ll make things right. Maybe you do for a while. But then home just becomes more bullshit, you know? Work, fuckin college, bills, you got girls pissin in your ear. And now you got nothin to look forward to. No dream. This is it, there ain’t nothin fuckin better, and you gotta learn to live with that. People wonder why we kill ourselves. Why suicide rates are so fuckin high. That’s why, man. That’s it right there. That’s a hard fact to come to terms with.
I think about the long first days home from the war. Carousel days of fast food and whiskey and drunken sex. I agree. Absolutely.
I’ll tell you. Sometimes I just want to drop it. Drop everything. Give it up and go walking. Just leave everything behind and just go the fuck out there somewhere. It don’t matter where. Just give it up. I can’t, not no more, since I got my son. You gotta come outn see him sometime, man. He’s gettin big. Almost three.
Three, I say. An echo. The age doesn’t bother me so much as the idea behind it: that slippery sense of time here where every day is the same. Where it isn’t defined by pain. Three years here in comfort.
I know, man. Like we went over there in 2003. Seven fuckin years ago. It feels like my life ain’t changed at all. I mean I know it has, fuckin obviously, but still. It might as well be fuckin yesterday. There’re kids I work with that were in fuckin elementary school for Nine Eleven. Fifth fuckin grade, dude. And there we were in basic.
I smile at that. I can’t help myself. I remember thinking it was a joke, a way for the drill instructors to fuck with us. I hadn’t known it was real until I graduated. Talk about terrible fuckin timing on our part.
I guess, man. I don’t know. He tilts his wrist up to the light and wipes the face of his watch clear. Listen. I gotta get. I won’t be worth shit tomorrow.
What time you work?
Zero six. Always do on Friday mornings.
Yeah. Tell me about it. Least I’m off on Sunday.
I’d hope so. Be fuckin retarded to work on Easter.
We shake hands and hug and I say Listen, dude. Drive safe. If you need me give me a call.
I will. Take it easy.
He walks down the stairs and out into the parking lot and there is the sound of the car door and the slow grind of the engine with the bad starter and then the flare of taillights. They turn every puddle into blood and the close walls of the complex into burnt skin and mortared veins like architecture in some deep circle of hell. He drives off in the rain and catches the curb as he makes the corner. Leaving me to stand and watch the storm, entirely unaware of the absurdity of telling him to stay safe while letting him drive home drunk. But standing here in the rain, that doesn’t matter. It can’t. We’ve been through training together and combat together. He won’t get into an accident. And if he does, so what? There is a joy in self-destruction. We knew it once. Sometimes we still do.
I take another drink. After a time I go inside and stumble into bed and sleep. I dream of a country where I dreamed about this one and it is a good dream and a sad one and lost when I wake up. I won’t remember much of this night. Little worth remembering because the memory is already there. Talk of memory is not the memory or the dream. Only words to share and bring to life things forgotten.