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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Empty Archway

In the five years since my last deployment to Afghanistan, I have been trying to put together a novel. I wrote out an entire draft manuscript and rewrote it twice before deciding to scrap the entire thing and start over. The original plot was centered on a Marine officer who, on the flight back from Afghanistan, gets drunk in Spain, misses his plane, and journeys north to Paris.

In the nearly three years since I left the Marine Corps, I realized that the story is much larger than that, so I'm back to the drawing board. But as we close out 2015 and head into the new year, I decided to read over the ending of the original. It resonates with me even more strongly now, albeit for the fact that I have not made much progress in doing the things I told myself I would do when I got out.

2016 is another year. I have no resolutions and I make no promises. I only hope that it does not pass me by in as much of a blur as 2015 did. One of these years, I'll start really living.

I hope that the ending of this novel that will never be published will remind me, and maybe a few others, to keep after it.

***
Paris, France
Darkness had fallen by the time the train pulled toward its rest at the Gare Montparnasse. The curved modern façade of the building defied my hopes for a grand Belle Epoque terminus. Rather than gliding into a tunnel set into a distinguished building, the tracks just skirted under the glass paneling of the station. The lamps within were too weak to reach beyond the tinsel and bathed only the platform in their pale light. The anticlimax feeling left me drained.    
I transferred to the Metro and took it one stop to Saint-Placide. Both tourists and locals both passed me by in their rush, but I savored each step as I emerged from the ground to drink in Paris one more time. It was a city to love and the sights, sounds, and smells came to me more and more with each step; like an awakening. And when I stood on the sidewalk in the Paris night, the indescribable city energy I’d always loved reached up into my chest and clutched it tight with that intoxicating anxiousness to roam and explore and experience it all. I knew, though, where I was going. The route was chosen, so I headed down Rue Notre-Dame des Champs briefly before turning left on Rue de Fleurus.
I walked more quickly, though not too quickly to gaze at the distant warmth of the apartment lights glowing above the street. I stopped for a moment to look longingly down the tree-lined Boulevard Raspail, but I knew I had to cross and continue on down the narrow vein. I stopped for a moment as the plaque at 27 Rue de Fleurus caught my eye, marking the place where Gertrude Stein threw out her dirty, easy labels. “You are all a génération perdue … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” I shook my head and stepped off again on my march into the night.
Registan Desert, Afghanistan
They flew south through the cold night, the wind biting deep and the roar of the rotors cut only by the constant frequency of the turbines that spun them. The sound enveloped us, leaving each alone with his thoughts for nearly an hour.  Nearing the border, the crew chief began to give us time warnings with a yell and a hand signal.  Looking across the helo and out the gunner’s door, I vaguely registered the streak of rockets firing into the hills north of the objective.  Ahead, huge flashes rent the night as 2000-pound bombs pummeled the areas around our landing zone. The crew chief yelled, “One minute out.” I looked at the faces across from me in their various expressions of concentration, nervousness, or dismissal. The helicopters reefed back, using their rotors to slow at the last minute. We heard the moon dust and pebbles blasting the metal belly below us, then felt the wheels strike the earth.  The Marines charged off the chopper, running through the open doorway into the black night, immediately positioning themselves in a hasty perimeter.  No sooner were we off the helos than the pilots powered into the sky, pivoted, and peeled back away from the objective.  I watched the last helo go, the eerie green light of its interior fading almost immediately into the night.  They left a tornado, then silence. 

I quickly got my bearings then took control of the aviation support from a Cobra helicopter that banked overhead in its orbit.  Small groups of men were already up and moving through the compounds. We could hear the crump of artillery pounding the mountain passes to the north and  a few rounds being traded in the direction of the other LZ that the Brits went to, but there were no signs of life here.  Another volley of rockets sailed into the hills.  Overhead, the infrared flares dropped for the helicopters’ ingress blinked out, leaving nothing but inky dark. 
A voice from a plane orbiting to the west crackled in my earpiece, warning that a thunderstorm was moving in on us from the northwest.  In all my time in Helmand, I had yet to see rain. That night, my only thought was that it would drive the Cobras overhead away, leaving us alone on the border with Pakistan. 
I advanced through the bazaar in trace of the teams clearing its warrens.  The intelligence briefer’s words, “crawling with IEDs,” fresh in my mind, I tried to follow in the footsteps of those ahead of me as the rain swept quickly over us, sheeting down in torrents. The flash of lightning froze an image of the Marine ahead of me darting past an empty doorway. Just then, a volley of rounds cracked out of the rain.  The Marine took cover on the far side of the mud archway while I stopped short of it, unsure where the fire had come from.  I began to crouch down when a roar and a blinding flash tore through the night.
I found myself on the ground, dazed.  There was a lump lying next to me; a figure I could not quite recognize.  I stared for a moment, unable to make sense of what I saw.  Both thighs ended in a bloody, shredded trail of clothes, flesh, and mud.  An arm sat queerly, almost completely severed. The Marine was initially unconscious, but the adrenaline dumped into his system. His eyes flew open, the pupils wide, and he gasped for air. He knew, at that instant, that he was still alive. I saw in the face a piercing mix of shock, disbelief, fear, and understanding.  The Marine’s eyes searched about, then seized on me. In that instant, he knew all and everything had been decided.
The Marine blinked and the lightning suspended the large raindrops, frozen in time above his face. A corpsman arrived, dropped to his knees next to the body, and started applying the tourniquets we all carried. He raced with practiced hands, but so much blood had already pumped out. We were on the border with Pakistan, nearly an hour away from the nearest Role 3 hospital by air.  I watched dumbly, my senses dull and disembodied from the concussion, as the corpsman struggled to find the arteries that were already retracting into the stumps.  Someone held the wounded Marine’s hand in the rain, repeating over and over that it would be OK.
San Diego, California
It wasn’t very late when they came out of the restaurant and made their way to the car.  It had rained while they were at dinner.  The air was crisp and sweet, giving the night an unseasonable spring-like feel.  He opened the door for her, offering his hand to help her in.  She took it, a welcome novelty, with a smile and lowered herself into the seat.  He got in and shut the door, then asked, “What now?  We could go to another place I know for a nightcap or a coffee.”  He paused imperceptibly to gauge, “Or, we could just call it a night?” 
“This has been great, Dave, but it’s a lot.  Can we just call it a night?”  Her smile was more of a wince.
“Of course.”  He smiled genuinely, put the car in gear, and pulled out of the parking spot.  The streetlights on either side of the road streamed by like raindrops inching backwards with the wind.  Penny was turned away from him, intently staring out the window as they drove through town. 
The radio was on—not very loud, just something playing in the background. The song changed and she heard the tones of an organ. Her breath caught as she was transported to another time. It wasn’t long before James left for Afghanistan, a Friday night. He came home. As usual, she could smell the alcohol on him when he walked through the door. He’d been drinking in at the office or at the club or in his car. She didn’t know or care. She decided to be civil. It was almost over. She let him hug her when he came in, but offered only her cheek as he tried to kiss her. He went upstairs to change, came back down, and started the grill for the steaks she had marinating. He took the steaks out of the refrigerator and snuck a beer. He thought she didn’t notice, but she always did.
She cringed as he hooked his iPhone to the speakers. He always had to listen to music when he was drinking. Always a new fixation he heard somewhere. He clicked through a few songs before he found it. Florence + the Machine’s “Shake it Out.” Some alternative song he’d heard God knows where trying to be a kid again. He’d never grown up. He turned it up once, then again, and once more for good measure, then started it over. She watched him through the window, flipping the steaks, smiling and mouthing the lyrics. “Regrets collect like old friends.” He made her blood boil.
She remembered the look on his face when she started yelling at him to turn it down. When she told him he was drunk. When she said that she hated him. When he yelled back. She remembered the silent dinner, everyone looking sick. And she felt guilty. She wondered if he ever felt guilty.
She remembered him in the passenger seat of his red Trans-Am. He was twenty-two years old. She was driving, leaving the bar district in downtown Cleveland just a bit after 2 AM. Traffic was jammed on a summer night. The windows were down. “Sweet Home Alabama” was playing. He kept turning it up. She kept turning it down. They were both laughing. The rest flooded through in snapshots. She remembered all the dreams he’d had for them: a house to grow old in, vacations to remember, an apartment in Paris for them all to escape to. Face in her hands, tears streaming between her fingers, she remembered the smile on his face as he listened to “Shake it Out” just before she set on him.
“It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back so shake him off. And given half the chance I would take any of it back. It’s a fine romance but it’s left me so undone. It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  Dave gently placed his hand on her shaking shoulder.  She didn’t flinch.  After a few moments, she looked at him with the most contrived smile.
“Dave.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’ve been just waiting for so long. The next training det, the next billet, the next deployment.  I always told myself, when that is over, we can enjoy life.  It never happened.”  She buried her head against the seat, shaking it as she looked up at the roof of the car, the tears rolling down her cheeks.  “It never happened.  We imagine all these things and have all these plans and hopes and then life dictates its own plan.  And we just have to move on.” 
She paused and looked at him, her voice weak and questioning now.  “Right?  We have to move on?  I don’t know if I can.  I mean, everyone keeps telling me that God has a plan for me.  Over and over again.  If this was His plan, I don’t think I want the next part.  I’ve had enough, thank you.”  She let out a small, strained laugh.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know anything about plans and what God wants. I don’t think He wants any of this suffering. It just happens. But we can handle it. It isn’t a matter of this being God’s test or God’s plan. It just is. And you can handle it. Penny, everyone is here for you, but you can handle this.”
He turned into the driveway and shut off the car.  Her head was against the headrest, her big eyes fixed on him.  He looked down for a moment, thinking, then looked into her eyes.  “Well, I don’t know if we move on.  We can tell ourselves that.  Maybe we keep moving, but we don’t move on.  And as for plans, there is no plan.  We have a desperate need to make sense out of things, but the sense is that there is no plan.  Life happens and we can either imagine it or live it.”  He looked down again.  “Well, easy for me to say.  I know. But I’ve been there too.”
“No.  I need to hear it.  Thanks so much for taking me out.  Sorry I wasn’t much fun.”
“It was fun.  It was very nice.  And I’m so grateful to have you in my life.”  She put her hand on his.
“I told you a long time ago that I would take care of you if anything happened.  I’m here for you.  Whenever you need me.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything.  She reached for the door handle.  He got out slowly and gave her a moment as she stood with her back to the car.  She made her way slowly around the car and he walked her to the door.  “Thank you for being so patient with me.  It was so nice to get out.” 
“It was my pleasure,” Dave answered as she worked the lock.  “I bid you a good night.” 
“Good night,” she smiled.
Penny turned inside the doorway to watch him walk to the driveway and pull away, then she shut the door gently, her hand lingering on the cold surface as she stared at the floor.  She turned and looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time.  The kids had left their things strewn about, as usual, but other than that, it was clean.  Too clean.  And it felt especially empty without them there.
She walked to the corner of the room and picked up a letter off the table.  It was worn already, but she read it once again.
“Dear James,
I’ve written this letter dozens of times already.  I’ve crumpled it up and thrown it away.  I’ve shredded it.  I’ve taken it all the way to the post office in an envelope with a stamp only to throw it away outside.  I even burned one draft.  But I keep writing it.  I don’t want to, but I miss you so much.  I want our life back the way it used to be, before it started falling apart.  Being without you is tearing me apart.  We can’t go on like we were, but I don’t want to give up on us yet.  We can work on this when you get home, but for now, know that I am here.  Waiting for you.
I love you.  I’ve always loved you,
Penny”
She placed the unsent letter back on the table.  It was covered with picture frames.  The centerpiece was a heart-shaped frame with a close-up of the new rings on their hands taken on their wedding day.  Next to it, a picture of them standing together in the little gazebo in the park where they were married.  She shook her head at how young James looked with his high and tight, only one medal on his dress blues.  There was a picture of them with their newborn son.  Then their newborn daughter.  Christmas with his grandparents, now all gone.  Happy visits home on leave.  She looked at James with her dad as they proudly, defiantly held their beers up for the camera.  Her dad loved James like a son.  Pictures of them in eleven different houses in five different states and two countries.  She shook her head at the adventures they had, pictures in front of the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice.  There were pictures of homecomings from earlier deployments.  And in the middle, was the picture of the last Marine Corps ball they went to. 
She picked it up.  The same couple, the same smiles.  He was older.  He looked tired.  He wore the same dress blues, but instead of one medal, there were several rows.  She set the picture down, then looked up at the wall over the table.  The medals were there, framed under the folded flag. And the feeling hit her anew, as it seemed to keep doing, and she went back to that day in her living room when the chaplain, and an officer from James’ unit stood by as Dave fulfilled the wishes of his best friend, sealed in an envelope the military kept locked away for just this occasion, and told Penny that James was never coming home again. Her head dropped and her shoulders hitched, then shook with the sobs.  She thought it was all over, that she was done crying after months of misery, but it didn’t seem to have an end ever.
Paris, France
I saw it when I rounded the next bend in the street. The distant trees bent in an embrace over the gate that guarded the Luxembourg Gardens. As I came to the edge of the park, I looked up and down the silent, empty sidewalk. The long, transecting walk of the park was empty, as well.
Across the street, I stepped through the empty archway onto the broad dirt path and walked, head bowed under the canopy of trees in the park. I felt it all lift away off my shoulders. I knew all and everything had been decided. I understood my journey and knew my destination and I had only the park to savor before it was over.  The streetlights glanced in from the side, casting a sickly yellow light.  Now and again, they were screened by the trees and a hole in the canopy above let through the soft, bluish beams of the nearly full moon, casting my shadow lightly on the ground.  Coming to the opening by the pond in the center of the park, I stopped and stared at the shadows of the buildings against the starry night. My breath crystallized the stars.
I turned right, heading south until I reached Rue Auguste Comte, taking it to Boulevard Saint-Michel.  On another visit, I might have headed up the street to see the statue of Saint Mike, then go on to the river.  But tonight, I pivoted and headed down the tree-lined boulevard until I saw the statue I’d been after all along; the statue I’d read about in the book I’d stuffed in my assault pack. The statue was obscured by the arms of a hundred branches moving lazily in the evening breeze; the glow of the Closerie des Lilas, dying before it touched the bronze.  I looked over at the café.  I’d always been drawn to a clean, well-lighted place, but this time I would stay outside in the night.
The air was surprisingly cold as I walked up to the statue, situated in a small space next to the street.  Field Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s most trusted subordinate, stood there eternally, his sword in the air.  I read the inscription below Ney’s statue marking his death as the 7th of December, 1815. That day, Ney was executed by firing squad, at his own command, without a blindfold next to the Luxembourg Gardens I had just walked through.  Ney, who fought the rear-guard out of the Russian winter, who lost the left flank at Waterloo, who never forsook Napoleon.  Or France, in his mind.  For statues in the night, masses had died in place, or been carried away freezing and dying in wagons, or old Model Ts, or Fiats, jeeps, or helicopters. Générations perdues.  They always would be.
They were pulling down the metal shutters of the café.  I sat and leaned back against the bench, looking up into the sky.  A flash illuminated what I thought were huge raindrops, speeding downward.  I flinched and drew in my breath in anticipation of the cold, soaking downpour.  I remembered pain and winced, but it was not a rainstorm.  It was snow.  Finally, I’d see Paris under the snow.  The bright streetlights illuminated the swirling flakes in the night sky.  I closed my eyes as they came down slowly, softly around me, settling gently on my face. Each snowflake fell silently, but in the city night all else was calm and quiet. Nothing piled upon nothing, arching toward infinity until, as I sat completely still and thoughtless, the sum was a soft and constant hush all around me.
I thought of snowstorms when I was young.  Sitting in my room, I looked out the back window across the white of the yard to the snow globe swirling around the streetlight.  The puffed flakes dancing in the wind that silently roared now and again over the roof above.  I would open the window to feel the cold of the air, crisp, and hear the hush that a snowstorm always brought. The dance of the flakes mesmerized me.  I went to the Space Needle once in Seattle.  The elevator attendant told us that if one rode the car down when it was snowing, the flakes seemed to snow upward under the lights of the tower.  I’d really wanted to see that, but I knew it would exist now only in my mind.  Where I was going, there was no snow, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain.
The bench was cold, like the one I woke up on the other morning in Spain.  How many days, I didn’t know.  Time was an illusion now.  I let out a deep breath, my hands folded on my lap.  My hand slipped off my thigh and I felt it fall warm into another hand.  I looked down to see the familiar fingers.  I turned and looked into her eyes and she smiled. 
“I knew you would be here,” I said. 
“Of course,” she said.  “I’ve always been with you.”
“And the kids?”
“They’re nearby.  They love you. ...  I love you.”
“I love you all so much,” I said.  Love moves the sun and the other stars, I remembered reading once. I remembered our first date, when we sat on a bench beside the Severn River in the evening light.  Now, that adventure was over and I held her hand and we both sat silently staring up at the statue.  Huge flakes floated down, first melting against the bronze.  In time, the skin of the statue cooled and the snow began to stick.
As I drifted off, I remembered a long-ago hike back to the barracks after the Crucible, the final exercise of Officer Candidates’ School; the night I became a Marine. We marched in the darkness in silence.  Sleepwalking.  Then the candidate leading the formation kicked up a cadence in a thick southern accent.  “Goin’ home, goin’ home.” We echoed back, some forty tired voices in the night.  “No I guess it won’t be long.” Our echo became stronger.  “No it won’t be long. … ’Fore I get on back home.” We were just kids. A few years later, we led the sons and daughters of our nation into battle.
I hiked through the night on the hilly trails, then I found myself once again driving the soaring heights of Del Dios Highway.  I closed my eyes and the long, dying light of the afternoon flashed around hilltops and trees, filtering warm through the flesh and blood veil of my eyelids.  My memories flashed bright between the shadows.  The feeling of being very small and loved and comfortable.  Expanding outward toward familiar faces and sounds, then past.  Careening into the world of new things, wondrous, troubling, and scary.  Friends became closer, then farther away as I flew out, out through the universe of the million little things that make a life. The moment I knew she would be my wife.  The birth of my children.  Their smiles.  Their weight in my arms.  I left them all behind on my journey, fleeing, seeking.  I felt weightless, aimless, spent, then began collapsing back toward the core.  Back into the warmth of the kindnesses of family and friends. The small hours of really living.  The feel and smell of my kids’ hair as I kissed them goodnight.  It all flowed through me, all the good pieces others had given me.  And the last thing I sensed was the intense, intimate comfort of my wife holding my hand and telling me over and over that it would be OK.  An irresistible sleep fell deeply upon my eyes, the memory of my struggles laid to rest.  Darkness came over me as the world that swirled in between my synapses, the amalgamation of everything I knew and all that I was and wanted to be, came to a close and the green light of my dreams faded into the distance.
Bahram Chah, Afghanistan
The storm was already dying out as the helicopter touched down in the zone.  As soon as the bird came to a rest, they bore him out of the fighting on a litter.  A Marine ran alongside, holding James’ hand, only letting go as they thrust him into the door of the helicopter.  The green interior lights of the helicopter washed over James’ face once more.  The Marine took one last look before stooping to rush out from beneath the rotors and knew he was gone.
When it became light out, they searched for the rest of him; for the parts they did not find in the dark and the rush of getting him to the medevac chopper.  They loaded what was left behind into a body bag and carried it back to the LZ. One Marine read a fragment of paper he found mixed in with camouflage fabric, a beaded necklace, and a chunk of leg. In a woman’s handwriting it said, “In case I lose my mind: My name is James Placidus. My home address is 33547 Avenida Sivrita, San Diego, California. My wife and kids are Penny, Stephen, and Molly. I am left-handed. I am American. My birthdate is November 14, 1975. I am 35.”
***
Back at Camp Leatherneck, the mortuary affairs Marines were working on the rest of the body, preparing it for transfer.  Clean, cold water poured over his forehead, washing away the dirt and clotted blood from his skin.   They peeled away the shredded uniform and placed his good hand against his naked abdomen.  They pulled the wedding ring off a cooling finger, catalogued it, and placed it in a bag.
***
Late in the day, the helicopters came.  First, the fast, asp-like Cobras, two of them crossing over the LZ to ensure the area was clear, then a small UH-1 Huey, squatting slowly into the dust.  The helicopter brought some supplies.  Blown by the wind, his friends carried the body bag of his remains to the LZ, waiting as others carried away supplies before they gingerly placed their cargo on the floor of the helo.  The bearers crouched and ran from the helo.  One stood behind, his hand on the vinyl for another moment as the rotors spun up, buffeting him before he ran away as the machine rose into the sky in a cloud of dust.
***
Penny walked into the girl’s room, pulling the covers back.  “Wake up,” she said cheerily.  “It’s time for school.”  She walked down the stairs, running her hand through her hair.  She picked up the letter from the counter, considering it once again.  She skimmed over the scrawled details to the part that mattered.  The bit she was afraid to send away.  “I love you.  I have always loved you.”
***
The remains came just in time to be placed in the transfer case with the rest of him.  Sometimes, the portions had to be flown separately from the rest of the body. 
After the sun fell, a KC-130 thundered to a stop, then crawled off the runway to park in wait.  Forklifts hurried to and fro to empty the plane of its cargo, as props wound down to a stop.  The lights in the belly of the aircraft spilled out of the open ramp into the suddenly quiet night, lighting a rectangle of gravel where the crew assembled to stand in wait.  Hundreds of Marines took their places quietly in the darkness, lining an approach to the aircraft’s tail.  It was nearly midnight when the ambulance crunched to a stop in the gravel next to the aluminum airstrip. The dust hung in the red of the brakelights.
The chaplain said a brief prayer, then the honor guard lifted the transfer case and slowly marched toward the waiting plane.  As the body floated between them, each rank faced obliquely and saluted the deceased.    After climbing the ramp, the body bearers faced sharply and placed the transfer case on the floor of the aircraft.
***
James’ best friend Dave stood woodenly next to the chaplain and the Marine casualty assistance calls officer in the Placidus’ living room.  The girl stood halfway down the stairs, the boy next to her, his hand on her shoulder.  Penny fell to her knees, her hand between Dave’s.  She knelt on the floor, sobbing.
***
At the airfield in Afghanistan, James’ commanders and his friends filed onto the aircraft in twos, each pair taking a knee to pay their final respects.  They would not be home for the funeral.  As the last two disappeared into the night and their ragged breaths faded, the loadmasters strapped the aluminum case to the floor, and the aircraft commander signed the “Convoy List of Deceased Personnel” in triplicate.  He took a moment to consider the name on the form, as he did with each of these flights.  Another name of another person he would never know.  A meaningless label.
The crew climbed aboard and the engines spun back to life in sequence.  The lights in the back of the aircraft switched from white to the otherworldly green for their night vision goggles.  A crewmember standing in the back of the cargo compartment shut the ramp and cargo door, eyelids shutting on a glowing green iris in the night.  The plane lumbered onto the runway and roared on its way.  Receding into the distance, the lights banked to the right as they turned east for Kandahar.  They shut off their lights once clear of the airfield and vanished into the night sky.  For a few moments, Leatherneck fell silent.
***
“The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odor of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.” – Federico Garcia Lorca


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