Here is something I've been working on for quite awhile.
I'm just about ready to abandon it. The title is a placeholder.
It's a very specific freedom, born of blue sky and a horizon that just goes, a landscape without reaping: after six months in Iraq, Interstate 10 is more than just cracked concrete. West Texas is more than a sun-blasted wasteland. It assumes a new abundance, defined less by what it is and more by what it isn't: Flick your cigarette out the window; the route isn't compromised. Get lost; dawn is not your enemy. Take this exit; nobody dies.
Drive for days, and nothing matters.
Blue sky for miles and the kind of heat that scorches and kills but doesn't stick, an ethereal, shimmering heat that you can't remember at midnight for the cold that grips you.
I tell you.
I drove away and told the smallest possible number of people where I was going. Tuesday, I was cleaning my rifle in the armory. Wednesday, I hit the road. I drove through Mississippi, Louisiana, to Texas. Chiefs called:
No, I'm not gonna do that.
What are you going to do, kick me out of the Navy?
I stopped answering the phone. Just drove.
I ran out of gas between Houston and San Antonio. I started walking east, red sunset at my back, surrounded by scrub and sand. A haggard pickup ambled past, then stopped, little clouds of dust following it off the road. I walked up to the window, looked in, saw a heavyset man in the half-light, wearing a cowboy hat that may once have actually seen the world from horseback.
"That your car back there?"
"Flatonia's not too far. Hop in."
We drove for a bit. His radio was tuned to a station that played only the sort of old country that might have been rebellious forty years ago. He turned it down and started talking. His name was Ted. He was a retired welder. He was on his way into town for "a halfway decent steak".
"Where you headed?" he asked.
"Home," I said. "Washington."
"If that's home, what's here?"
"Nothing," I said. I looked out the window.
He grunted and waited.
"I just got out of the Navy."
"I was stationed in Mississippi."
"Yeah. Surveying and whatnot."
"They send you to the desert?"
He changed lanes. "How 'bout that."
I nodded, listened to the rumble of the truck. Ted drove. The sun set. He leaned over and turned the radio back up. We listened to Johnny Cash for the rest of the ride. We pulled up to a gas station. I got out and turned back to the window, Ted looked me in the eye, and nodded, then hit the gas and drove off. I waited for the dust to settle, then went inside to see about getting a gascan.
I got as far as San Antonio before exhaustion took hold.
On Thursday, I drove west for hours without seeing another living thing. The Ten led me through nothing. I chain-smoked while I drove, flicking butts out the window. I stopped when I ran out of cigarettes. It was some dirty town hundreds of miles from relevance and minutes from ghosthood, still alive for the trickle of travelers off the Ten. I bought a carton of Spirits at the town's only gas station, and while I filled my tank, I watched the dust clouds and tumbleweeds roll across the road and into the hard-packed desert, disappearing. The pump clicked off. I stood and imagined walking after the tumbleweeds, into the desert and out of life, lost in rock and sand and light, my passing marked only by a footprint, erased by the wind in a heartbeat. I came to with a start. I'd been staring out at the waste for at least ten minutes. More tumbleweeds rolled across the road. I got into my car and drove, smoking, all the way to Tucson.
In the morning, I ate huevos rancheros before the heat became actively hostile, while the sun still seemed like it might tolerate life. I left Tucson with the sun at my back and sleep in my eyes. I drove through the malevolent Arizona desert for hours and saw nothing but bad road and worse land, the only part of the country where asphalt improves the view. In California, a brown, dome-like haze gradually appeared on the horizon, menacing, hooked at either end, miasmic and spectral.
I opted to drive around LA.
The route went through canyons and over mountains, roads that turned into corridors and closed me in. As the sun began to set, the rock walls fell away and became soil, then farmland. The rolling green Mediterraneaneity was almost too much too quickly; in full daylight I might have wept. I made it to San Francisco around midnight. I showed up unannounced on a friend's doorstep, beleagured, unshaven, reeking of cigarettes and the accumulated sweat of three days. She had a wary look that didn't fade when she saw me.
"Lana," I said. "It's me."
She squinted. "I don't--oh, my god! Rory!"
She threw her arms around me, and for a moment, my hands seemed stuck in my pockets, like I couldn't remember what to do with them, but it passed and I put my arms around her and squeezed, then picked her up while she laughed.
"Good to see you too," I said.
"How are you? Jesus, you smell like a roadhouse bathroom. Get inside, you need a shower, do you have a change of clothes..."
She didn't give me time to answer, so I let her questions roll over me. She led me to the bathroom and I stood in the shower, watching the water slide down the drain, grey and heavy. Lana was waiting for me when I finished; she took me to her couch, now covered in blankets. I laid down and closed my eyes, but I was full of the giddy faux-energy of the exhausted traveler. I thought of the desert, and sleep came gradually; I dreamed of Iraq.
I get out of my rack and now I'm carrying my rifle to work, now I'm sitting in the concrete cube where I do whatever anyone tells me to, Chief Cook is telling me to update the flight schedule, now unit accountability is short and nobody knows where Petty Officer Slate is, but we're at chow anyway and I eat the spicy brown middle eastern food nobody else touches while Constructionman Lane talks about Radiohead and purple skies and pussy, then I look up and the sun is setting while the convoy team talks and laughs about everything, and nothing. My back is to the picnic table proper, the voices of my unit batter me like tides, over and over, I look over my shoulder and it's night, nobody is there, but I look forward and the sun has yet to set and the voices are there again, and I'm worn into the ground, then the sun sets but I don't go anywhere.
I opened my eyes and sat up on the couch, tried to remember where I was. Lana sat in a chair next to the couch, watching the news, muted, captions on.
"Morning," I said.
"Good morning! Get up, we're going to breakfast."
We went to a bistro not far from her house. We ate; she talked about her job writing advertising copy, about life in San Francisco, the little things that had happened since we finished college.
"So," she said. "What are you going to do now?"
I poked at my eggs. "Go home."
"And I don't know."
She sipped her coffee, looked at me over the rim. "Tell me about Iraq."
I shrugged. "What do you want to know?"
"What were the people like?"
"I don't know."
"You were there, weren't you?"
"So..." I sipped my own coffee. I glanced around, suddenly nervous, the sound of silver on plates deafening. "Let's get out of here."
We went to Golden Gate Park, found a secluded bench. I leaned back and looked up at the sky. Lana sat, looking at me. "Where were we?" she asked.
"It's just a country, Rory."
"No. It isn't." I laid down on the bench, closed my eyes, and took a breath; I smelled cut grass. "It's another planet," I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Everything wants you dead," I murmured.
I opened my eyes and watched the clouds slide across the sky.
"One night we were escorting some trucks west of Fallujah and we spotted a guy passed out by the side of the road. We stopped, woke him up, took him to the nearest base. He was an older guy. Cooperative. Friendly. Knew a little English. Turned out his hands were covered in dynamite residue. Once they figured that out, he spilled everything. Apparently he'd gone out with some other guys to set up a roadside bomb, then had a seizure. His friends left him for dead."
I lit a cigarette, let the first drag settle.
"This sixty-year-old epileptic was trying to kill us," I said, exhaling a plume of bluish smoke. I watched it roll around, then took another drag. Lana stood up and took my hand, led me to a shady spot in the grass. We sat down. She put her hand on my shoulder, pushed me down to the ground, then put her head on my chest, over my heart, one leg over mine. I fell asleep in her warmth.
We woke up around noon, and spent the rest of the day wandering around Fisherman's Wharf. She cooked for me that evening, and we ate around the firepit in her backyard. Lana's roommate joined us as we ate.
"Tracy, this is my friend Rory."
"Hey, nice to meet you," she said.
I smiled, and waved.
"He doesn't talk much," lana said, laughing.
I shrugged. Tracy sat down next to the fire. She looked at Lana. "I talked to Wes and Rafik earlier, they said they'd drop by tonight. They should be here soon."
"Great. When's the last time we saw them?"
"Not since Burning Man last year."
I finished my hamburger and started on the strawberry rhubarb pie Lana had baked, while they talked about their friends. The two of them showed up right as I finished. Lana stood up, hugs were exchanged. They sat down and Lana said, "This is Rory, a friend of mine from college. He just got out of the Navy."
Their eyebrows went up. "Yeah? What ship were you on?" Wes asked.
"I wasn't on a ship. Ever heard of the Seabees?"
"They're like combat engineers in the Army, but we build stuff instead of making it explode."
"Cool. So you went to Iraq, then."
"Yeah, I just got back a few weeks ago."
"How long were you there?"
"What did you do over there? Lot of rebuilding to do, right?" Rafik asked.
"Actually, I was on a convoy security team for the first four months. We drove around at night, escorting trucks."
"Trucks full of what?"
"Stuff. Food, supplies. Whatever."
"Did you kill anyone?" Wes asked.
"Wes!" Lana shouted. He threw his hands back, palms out.
"No, it's fine...I didn't shoot anyone, not that I'm aware of."
"Would you have?"
"I don't know. Probably."
We all looked into the fire.
"What did you do for the rest of your time there?" Rafik asked.
"They stuck me in the combat operations center. The woman they had in there before me got pregnant by some jarhead, so she had to go home. I was the lowest-ranking guy on the team and the commander didn't much care for me, so I spent the rest of the deployment doing clerical stuff. updating whiteboards, communications, that sort of thing."
"Well thanks for your service, man. It's not an easy thing to do, joining up like that. We really appreciate it."
I thought of my first conversation with my recruiter: What are you doing after college. I don't know. Why not join the Navy? Sure, what the hell.
"Hey, no problem, buddy. I'm here for you," I said. Big laughs.
"You want a beer?"
"What've you got?"
I drank while the four of them reminisced. When the flames died down and nothing but embers were left, Lana led me to her bedroom. I sat on her bed and she wrapped her arms around me, kissed me, and her tongue found its way into my mouth. She pulled back, licked her lips. "Mm. You taste like pie," she said.
"You've only yourself to blame."
She laughed and started undressing me, down to my boxers. I got into bed and watched her outline as she took off her clothes. She slid under the covers, over me, all warm curves and soft skin, and reached down to take off my boxers. She stopped with her thumbs hooked into the elastic. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I am."
In the morning I dressed while Lana slept. I stepped out of her house and shivered, touched by a chill the sun hadn't yet burned off. I walked a few blocks to the west, crossed a battered highway, and came to the ocean. I listened to the waves break and heard my dream. I turned on my heel and went back to Lana's house. She was still asleep, on her back, arms behind her head. I watched her for a moment, amazed that anyone could sleep like that. I undressed and got back into bed.
I spent one more day with her, with Lana, watching forgettable movies, tangled together on her couch. I told her I'd be leaving in the morning, going north.
"You can stay longer, if you like," she said, as we stood next to my car that morning.
"I need to go home."
"Okay...come back sometime?"
I leaned against my car and looked at her eyes. Fiddled with my keys. She hugged me, hard, pressed herself into me.
I could still feel her, hours later, weaving through the Oregon mountains. I crossed the border into Washington, into light rain. The exit for my hometown came, and went. I drove east, up and over the mountains, into the rainshadow. I pulled into a rest stop and slept. I got out of my car with the sunrise, sat on the roof and watched. It bled over the horizon, soaking the wastes. This was my ocean.
In my life I have never been freer than in those three days driving across the desert.
That's all for now.