One of the Guys


Published in Issue 19, September 2014 of The Umbrella Factory


During my second week of boot camp, back in 2001, a drill sergeant blocked my way to the trash bins in the chow hall. “Are you wearing lipstick?”

The question struck me as so bizarre that without any fear or hesitation, I looked him right in the eyes (taboo this early in training) and said, “No, drill sergeant.”

“Are you lying to me?”

“No, drill sergeant.”

“Wipe your mouth.”

I picked a napkin off my plate, wiped my mouth hard, and held it out to him.

He frowned from the white napkin to my face. “Why does your mouth look red?”

“I don’t know, drill sergeant. I wear chapstick, but it’s the plain kind.”

“Lemme see it, private.”

I pulled out the stick and uncapped it for him.

He took it from my fingers, but just as quickly, shoved it back. “Get out of here.”

Shit, I thought, jogging back to the platoon area. My naturally red lips were drawing attention, and attention was the last thing I wanted in this place. Maybe if I let my lips get chapped they’ll lose color.

***

Later it was hair. The drill sergeants walked into the female barracks one day, ordered us to toe the line, examined our faces, and then punished those whose eyebrows looked like they had been plucked. Then, they told a few of the girls they should start shaving the fine hair on their upper lips “to meet regulation.” They held up scissors and told us the next time they came through, if any of our hair was hanging below our collars, they would cut it off on the spot.

The model Army face was male. The cadences we chanted were from a male perspective. The uniforms fit male bodies. And why wouldn’t they? The Army was largely male. Women were late to the party, and therefore, an afterthought.

In boot camp, and at drill with my National Guard unit, striving to be accepted as “one of the guys” came easily. I loved guys. I loved measuring myself against them. I loved proving I was as smart and athletic and capable as them. I loved their lack of drama. But while winning their acceptance was satisfying and rewarding, it also came with an invisibility cloak. They’d crack comments like, “I don’t trust anything that can bleed for a week and not die.” They’d talk about the flavor of their girlfriends’ pussies or what girls from other platoons they’d like to screw while I stared at the ground, feeling like an imposter on the verge of being discovered.

That’s why heading into Advanced Individual Training, or AIT[1], I was set on deviating from my pure tomboy role. I wanted to be seen as what I was: a woman. Still strong, athletic and capable, but pretty and with emotions and desires.  I knew I had potential—that the guys didn’t think I looked ugly or butch in uniform. After all, I had made “the list” at the end of basic training. I’d found out while I was lying on my bunk after lights out, daydreaming about eating a Snickers bar at the airport on my way home.

Salvarado, who slept one bunk over, was gossiping with Ellis, who slept under me. Salvarado spoke with a thick Cuban accent and had made it known since Day One that she was a model in civilian life, which none of us believed.  She had the body of a prepubescent boy and the poise of a hyena. She seemed to be battling a perpetual round of acne, and much to her rage, she was stuck wearing thick, Army-issue Basic Combat Glasses, (nicknamed “birth control glasses”). She did have beautiful, long black hair, but it had to be kept in a clumsy bun or braid all day.

“Did you hear about this list the guys made?” Salvarado asked Ellis in a whisper.

“What kind of list?”

“A list of the hottest females in the company.”

Ellis let out a snort. “The guys do that at my high school.”

“Don’t you want to know who’s on it?”

“No. I know I’m not. I’m bigger than half the guys here.” Ellis was at least 5’11” and solid, like a boxer. She’d been the only girl I couldn’t knock around when we had pugil stick training. “Are you on it or something?”

“Number nine in our platoon. These boys have no idea.  Put me in civilian clothes and no question I’d be number one.”

I rolled my eyes, thrilled she was being taken down a notch by the socialist way boot camp ran. Everyone wore exactly the same uniform and ate the same food and was issued the same gear and expected to memorize the same things and pass the same tests. No one had a better cell phone or the coolest car or a stockpile of high-end make-up. No one had anything.

            “Guess who’s number one for our platoon?” Alvarado said.

            I could hear Ellis unlace her boots and wrangle them off. “Hawn?”

“She’s number two.”

“Yoshira?”

“No.” 

“del Duca?”

I perked up, hearing my name.

“Yesss.” Salvarado hissed.

“What? She’s pretty. And she’s a way better platoon guide than Westfield. I don’t know why you hate her so much.”

I grinned up at the ceiling. For two and a half months I’d been dressed up like a man. I’d rolled around in sand and mud and sweat through my uniform and hocked up phlegm so I could breathe and gulped down food like a cretin and yelled guttural yells and dug holes out in the woods to bury my shit. Yet while I’d been feeling ugly and crude and masculine, a bunch of boys had conferred and agreed that yes, I was a sexy girl. I turned onto my back and allowed myself to inhabit my hips, my breasts, my thighs, my lips. Ever since reaching base I’d ignored them. Mentally sheared them off.

“No, I think del Duca’s pretty too,” Salvarado mumbled. “But she’s cute, not hot. She’s okay. Like I said, after graduation, when we put on our civvies, the guys’ jaws will hit the floor when they see me.”

She did turn heads that last day, with her wavy hair down and her makeup making her features pop and her designer jeans revealing she did have hips after all, and her push-up bra doing its work under a V-neck, silk tank top. On the other hand, I returned to the realm of drab college student in no-name jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, my shock of hair falling the same way it had all summer, except now it wasn’t stuck under a BDU cap.

I was such a hypocrite: a feminist who took pride in topping a list compiled by horny boys who had obviously been undressing me with their eyes while I strained to prove myself their equal. Heading into AIT the hypocrisy was more complicated. Everything was more complicated. UN weapons inspectors who had been sent into Iraq to investigate grainy satellite images that allegedly proved the existence of weapons of mass destruction had been yanked out of the country. Uncorroborated rumors Saddam Hussein’s regime was sending terrorists money had surfaced. President Bush had ordered the invasion of Iraq. It was only a matter of time before we were all called up. I wanted to find someone as disgusted with Bush as I was, as anguished by his role in this mess as I was. But if I couldn’t find that, I’d settle for the hottest guy who looked my way. I wasn’t going over to the sand box before having a fling.

I knew there was a level of absurdity to me being primed for casual sex heading into AIT. A fling was something as mythical to me as a unicorn. I had kissed a whopping three boys in my life and had sex with one. And of course, there was the bizarre notion that I would find love in a place where romance was banned.

***

I was outside the barracks, standing in formation, ready for the morning march to class, when I heard someone call my name.

“Hey, del Duca.”

I turned around and saw a short, muscular guy wearing BDUs so vivid I knew they hadn’t gone through ten washings yet. He was one of the poor suckers shipped here right after boot camp. “Yeah?”

 “So I got this friend who thinks you’re real cute. You’ve probably heard of him. Kasey?  In second platoon?”

“I don’t know who that is,” I said, glancing at Hohns, next to me, who was listening in on the conversation, as was everyone within earshot.

“You don’t know who Kasey is?”

“No.” I shook my head. Hohns shrugged.

“You don’t know.  Who Kasey is.” he repeated, apparently incredulous.

“Why would I? We’re in different platoons.”

He held up his hands. “It doesn’t matter. Okay, look over at second platoon. See the guy on the end of fourth squad with the blue notebook out? That’s him.”

Kasey was a hunk.  Tall, tan, thick, with a babyface a little like the young Marlon Brando. And he had a crush on me?

 “He wants to know if maybe you want to go out next weekend if everyone gets a pass.”

            “Why doesn’t he ask me himself?”

“What can I say? The guy’s shy. But a real good guy. We were buddies all through Basic at Fort Lost in the Woods.[2]

“I guess. Tell him to come say hi sometime on break.” The instructors let us socialize outside and use the vending machines for fifteen minutes twice a day. 

“So you’ll go out with him?”

“Maybe. Probably. I need to meet him first.”

The guy shifted his shoulders and let out a scoff. “Why can’t you just say yes?”

I raised my eyebrows and finally read his name tag. Brown. “Because this is weird, Brown.”

He held up his hands again. “Can I at least tell him you’re interested?”

“Yeah. Tell him I think he’s real cute too,” I said, immediately feeling like some character in a high school drama—Dawson’s Creek or My So Called Life.

Hohns let out a “pssst” and I whipped around. Drill Sergeant LaMonte had come out of the barracks and was charging toward us. I saw Brown zip over to his own formation out of the corner of my eye.

***

The next weekend, I met Kasey in the mall. I was feeling powerful in my tight jeans and black tank top and lean body that could kick all these mall-rat civilian girls’ asses at anything but applying liquid eyeliner and clinging to their boyfriend’s arms. My short hair fell down around my face instead of being pulled back in clips and my chest was gloriously free of my usual tight sports bra. The only part of the uniform I’d kept were the boots, because, well, they were really comfortable by now, and I preferred them over tennis shoes or sandals.

“You look good,” Kasey said, standing up from a bench outside Macy’s. He had a soft, low voice, the slow cadence of a surfer or skateboarder.

“So do you.”

He was wearing a polo shirt, his muscles bulging out of the short sleeves, jeans, and white sneakers.  We wandered and made small talk and ate a slice of pizza and then checked into a humid hotel with a bunch of other soldiers. The booze started pouring in. Someone’s bathtub became a makeshift cooler. After two beers I was warm and tingly and not entirely balanced.

Making out in Kasey’s room, rumpling the tacky, flowered bedspread, I thought we’d stop somewhere between second and third base—build up to sex in a few weeks. Besides, I was on the rag, a detail I let slip after my belt came off, and his fingers started working on my top button.

“Why don’t you just take your tampon out?” he asked, wedging two fingers into my waistband and tugging me closer. 

“But… I’ll still be bleeding.” With Aaron, sex during my period had been taboo. An unspoken taboo, but a very clear one.

“I don’t care.”

How mature of him, I thought. How progressive.

Tipsy, but not drunk, pressed against the smooth, bare chest of this determined boy, I gave myself The Test.  I imagined myself the next day. Then the next week. Then the next month. The next year.  Would I regret sleeping with this hot guy?  No, I concluded, forgetting all about using this same, mindblowingly faulty litmus test when joining the National Guard in 2000. No, I was going to enjoy this fling while I had the chance.

The next weekend, I was even more confident.  I had a fuck buddy. I’d never imagined myself having a fuck buddy. But in our last few hours of weekend freedom, everything changed.

            “Why are you so quiet?” Kasey asked.

I’d been standing at the hotel room door, looking out across the parking lot, waiting for him to get ready so we could grab breakfast before returning to base. I shrugged. “I’m just thinking.”

“Why don’t you watch TV or something?”

I glanced at the cartoons he had blaring. “Because it doesn’t interest me.”

“You are the weirdest girl I’ve ever been with.” The soft quality of his voice was gone.

I turned around and found my arms gripping each other in awkward hug. “What do you mean by weird?”

“This,” he waved his arms. “Standing there staring off into space. Is there something wrong with you?”

“No. Like I said, I’m just thinking.”

“Why don’t you talk?”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

“I guess I don’t talk unless I have something to say.”

He grabbed his wallet off the bedside table, and on opening it, shook his head. My eyes traveled over his compact body—a body you got from long hours at the gym and steady doses of creatine—his manufactured tan, the way he fixed his hair, his frat boy clothes, his expensive white shoes, and a slow dread crept from my stomach up my throat. He wasn’t a shy and sweet “good guy.” He was an asshole jock.

I thought about my own body—how in the shower girls sometimes asked me if my breasts were real.  How the drill sergeants had singled me out to model the Class A uniform for the company’s officers when we were getting fitted. How Kasey had teased me for my ridiculously long legs, had asked me if my lips were “natural,” if they were “always swoll like that.” I caught a glimpse of myself in the wide mirror over the sink at the back of the room.  I saw the same scrappy girl I’d always seen. Slender, yes, but awkward, with huge hands and feet and an unattractive profile and thin hair that looked stringy whenever I tried to grow it out. I saw me. Did everyone else see a girl who’d gotten a boob job, who botoxed her lips?  Did Kasey see a self-conscious fool who’d be an easy lay with a little flattery?  I leaned into the door frame and shrank into myself.  “You want me to be all bubbly and flirty, don’t you?” I could picture exactly the kind of girls he’d dated in the past. Girls who wouldn’t entertain the idea of joining the Army to pay for school in a million years.

Kasey shoved his wallet in a back pocket. “Well, yeah, flirty would be more fun than what you are now. Hey, can you pay for the room like you offered last night?  I’m broke.”

“Sure.” I turned back around and stared past the parking lot to the green swath that was Ft. Lee, for once looking forward to covering myself head to toe in camouflage—marching in rhythm in a sea of camouflage. I wanted to hide, to disappear, to be “one of the guys” again, even though I knew I’d never really been one of the guys.

Time and distance revealed that not even the guys had been “one of the guys.” The boys around me had been caught up in their own struggle to be seen as manly men. That is the lure of the Green Machine, its gears clicking and whirring and whispering almost. See some action, earn some scars, watch the great maw of death open and close. Then you’ll be one of the guys. A hero.

Or is it the Green Machine that’s whispering? Could be Hollywood and Washington and the news. Could be the ads on the subway or the boss’s daughter or the boys next door, racking up virtual kills.

I was 17 when I signed a six-year contract with the National Guard. It became my biggest regret. And now that we’ve settled into a new sort of peacetime, I hear the same ads back on the radio. Join the Guard, defend your community against wildfires, pay for school, be a hero, just one weekend a month, two weeks a year…  I imagine struggling kids like me thinking exactly what I did. That the possibility of war on the horizon is far fetched. That putting on the uniform to pay for college is the responsible, adult thing to do. That proving you can be a soldier is beyond badass. Perhaps it’s up to the rest of us to box up some new whispers and send them off to Washington, Hollywood, the high school down the street.



[1] Advanced Individual Training is where you are trained for your Army job, or MOS. In my case, it was fueler school.

[2] The nickname for Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri.