We tried to think up ways to save him. Bash him in the shin with a baseball bat. Push him down the stairs. Shoot him in the thigh. For his part, he asked for a hemorrhoid for Christmas. He didn’t get what he wished for and was shipped to Iraq nine days later, a present himself, gift-wrapped in camo with a tag that read, “Just wanted to pay for college.”
There were four of us at an old hangout simply and suitably called The Pub: Jed and I sat across from Kristy and Thad, whose brother was postmarked for Baghdad. “It hasn’t really set in for him,” Thad said. Christmas dinner at his house had been painful—chewing and swallowing and talking about the cold.
We were visiting our college town over Christmas. It had been six months since we’d been back here, and already they were building an Applebee’s. “They’re really moving fast on it,” someone said, as if people in Maryville, Missouri, might lose their patience waiting for riblets and chicken wings. The town was empty, as it always is over school breaks. It was strange to be coming rather than going.
They don’t have Boulevard Wheat on tap anymore. Thad was disappointed; he said the brewery was one of the only sources of pride for his hometown, Kansas City. We didn’t know the bartender, who shrugged when we asked him about the missing beer. Even the women’s bathroom was different. The carpet that had famously lined the walls had been stripped away, and the toilet had been moved to the other side of the room. It was hard to recognize each other in this new setting.
When I left this town last year after graduation, I was happy to go. I had succumbed to a stagnancy, a malaria effect, from staying here too long. I got sleepy. But there’s something troubling about remembering a place that doesn’t remember me. I moved four hundred miles away to get on with my life, but this town had only to stay in its place to forget, to reinvent. The freshmen always come and the Wal-Mart parking lot fills up day after day.
At The Pub, we complained that the same CDs still rotated in the jukebox, but I felt relieved, almost triumphant. We played the songs we had always played, and we sang along to them.
What will Thad’s brother think of when he misses home? Towns play tricks on people after a while, make people think of them as postcards, as places to be missed, places to long to be. I find I’m most disappointed in myself when I go back—to this place, to anywhere I’ve lived— that I too fell for the illusion of a place beckoning me home.
Surfaces had changed. The colours of the houses seemed tinted, darker. There were bumps in the road that I forgot to swerve around. Thad’s brother will be building roads in a war zone. That’s his job: to build streets and bridges, to create new surfaces, to pave things over. I think of the people who will drive on those roads. Do they view my friend’s brother with hostility for the way he’s remoulded their country?
I think of Jed and I wonder when will be the last time my face will be soft when he touches it. Will he notice a difference, his hand pulled back from the way my skin ripples under his fingers like a stone tossed into a pond? When will be the last moment that my breasts will be firm, and will I be able to catch that moment just then? Capture it and say, Here, this is me. This is the me I know.
Jed is aging, too, though we’re still too young to talk about it. Kristy says she and Thad began to act old the minute they got married. She thought it was what they were supposed to do, act old. But she caught herself in time one morning, when she wouldn’t drink her tea without a saucer.
We held our pint glasses too long to our mouths, I noticed, and tried not to talk about Thad’s brother. But Kristy kept bringing us back, as she was right to do, with one word. Disgusting. She would utter it in disbelief. Disgusting. She would throw it at us like a slap and then slouch, look defeated and sigh it. Disgusting.
We hadn’t seen each other in a long time. They had moved to Alabama.
A song played that we knew. We shifted in our seats. Someone got up to get another beer. “A pitcher? Who’s still drinking?”
We still swear when we talk. That night, we said “ass” a lot. I had just seen a movie that used the word “ass” creatively. We tried it ourselves: Ass bag. Ass clown. Ass beer. We laughed like we always had. But maybe a little louder. Not forced laughter, but thankful laughter, the kind that gave us breathing room.
I read a Rolling Stone article about a reporter who followed troops around in Iraq. He wrote that the soldiers swore constantly. They would pump their fists in the air and yell “Get some” before going to battle. What does Thad’s brother, who I have never met, say around his Army buddies? Does he slap backs, say “cocksuckers” and “You’re shitting me”? Or does he withdraw, keep to himself, deemed weird, or freakish, or nerdy, or even gay?
We’ve developed a certain language among the four of us, which consists of more than just swearing. Like all languages, it includes things we say and things we don’t. Kristy doesn’t eat the way she should. In college, she counted calories in her head during class. We all know this, but we didn’t say anything when she talked about the chocolate chip cookies she was going to bake for Thad’s brother before he left.
When Jed dies, what image of him will I remember most?
I wonder if Thad’s brother has known love. Will he be able to remember love in Baghdad—the touch of a hand, a whisper—whe
n he’s faced with certain choices there? I want all soldiers to have known love before they go to war, as a prerequisite to boot camp and killing.
I heard they’re bringing dead soldiers back in transfer tubes. They’re not called “body bags” anymore. More language that makes everything bearable, breathable. Fuck that camel jockey.
“Fuck this,” Kristy said.
Jed and I didn’t stay long. We made plans to see Kristy and Thad in the spring. I’ve never been to the South. They say Tuscaloosa is beautiful that time of year. New Orleans, even.
I said goodbye, said I loved them. As I stood up, I placed my hand on a wall lined with beer signs and photographs of past students in athletic uniforms. And I imagined the wall—thin and flimsy and constructed quickly—toppling over. The other walls began to fall away too, one by one, collapsing, until all that was left was our booth, and the night sky, and a truck turning left onto Main Street, and the faint smell of gunpowder, drifting in from overseas.