Because Sometimes I Don't Know Why Either
Because sometimes I’m stuck next to someone who loves to chat on an airplane, or the train, or at a house party, or an office mixer, and we get to talking about the war, or the military, or George W. Bush, or the crazy, boozy free times you had as a college student I can’t relate to. And you ask. Or I offer. At any rate, the subject comes up. And never, not once, not even when I have all day to tell you the story, can I come close to a satisfactory answer. I just blather and blather, a dread building in my gut because words very rarely say enough. And sometimes I don’t have the energy to say enough, or I pass the “why” off because why bother? Why not just wait for the inevitable: Judgment. Your dismissal. A need to label, categorize, and quickly move on. And sometimes, I don’t know why either.
Because for one, the recruiter is young. And hot. And oh so very smooth. He is probably the hottest guy I have ever met in person. He walks with precision and feline grace, his boots clipping against the cracked tiles of our hick high school. He has noticeable muscles under his pristine, pressed uniform, a strong, smooth, angular jaw, sculpted eyebrows, bright blue eyes, and cropped dark hair fixed with some kind of gel. Men who fix their hair are foreign to me. I don’t even know how to fix my hair. Yes, he is shorter than me, but he is so dashing I don’t notice this on his first visit.
On his first visit we are given a choice: stay in American Government class, or go see what the recruiter has to say. He takes over the counselor’s office and hands us folders with a picture of eager soldiers climbing a rope ladder on the front. He talks about how much money the National Guard gives you for college in exchange for “one weekend a month, two weeks a year.” It’s a lot of money, or at least it seems so to me at the time.
Still, I don’t buy his pitch. There’s a catch. I know, because I’m a cynic. I can see right through his hotness and breezy, flawlessly confident car-salesmanesque countenance.
He smiles, running his eyes over my favorite sweatshirt, a ratty thing with holes in the cuffs of the sleeves I stick my thumbs through, my baggy pants, my Teva sandals. “Yes, you do have to complete basic training and your specialized job training. But you can do what’s called a split option. Go to boot camp this summer, then do your first year of college, and then the next summer knock out the rest of your training. See, the Guard is really set up to let you be a civilian and a soldier at the same time…”
I listen, then glance down at the folder in my hand. “So what exactly do you do in boot camp? Scale things and roll around in mud?” I’m pretty sure boot camp is one long obstacle course.
He slaps his hands down on the desk and lets out a laugh. “Where does she come up with this stuff? Is she always like this?” Chris S. and Chris R. say “Yup,” although I can tell they don’t know what he means by “this.”
A seed is planted.
Because I’m seventeen years old and practically frothing at the mouth to move out of my mother’s trailer. I’ve been ready to leave since I was thirteen. Why thirteen? Because that’s when we moved halfway across the state from where I had finally started feeling happy, to the middle of the middle of nowhere (Eastern Montana), because my mother succumbed to an engagement proposal from this chubby prick named Wayne, who’d decided he wanted to stop trucking and work in the same platinum mine as his brother instead. Wayne had been living with us the past six years. I considered him a sort of irritating (sometimes despicable) overlord, but he made my mother happy once in a while so I tried to keep my complaining to a minimum. But as soon as they got married, he revealed his true nature: outright tyrant. And instead of continuing to make my mother happy once in a while, he began to wage a sort of miner’s warfare on her, slowly driving her spirits a little deeper underground each day, into the cold and dark, until her eyes lost their shine, her smile its warmth.
Because I’m just going through the motions here in this tiny town with its three bars and three churches and no gas station and one stoplight that doesn’t even change, just blinks yellow. I’m so over this place and the boys who are content to work on their parents’ sugar beet farms once they graduate, and the girls who are content to marry the boys who will work on their parents’ sugar beet farms once they graduate. For people like me, there is nothing to do here but wait to get out.
I am class valedictorian just by doing my homework. I know exactly what I want and exactly how to get it. I know everything. I even know more than my mother. I found that out two years after the move, when we still lived in the barren countryside with our cistern and root cellar and pile of lump coal out back for the stove.
One winter day, Wayne caught my little sister, Leila, petting his new puppy, a sweet, soft Black Lab we were forbidden to touch. “Now, this is a hunting dog,” he’d warned us, his flaccid face grim under his mustache. “You can’t go petting him and making him all friendly. The only thing you can do is get him to play fetch, got it?” We, of course, agreed. What else could we do?
Leila was outside playing fetch with the puppy. Each time the dog came loping back to her she’d take her time wrestling the stick from him, her hands running over his feathery fur. I knew this because I was doing homework on the couch by the window, writing a story about two men on a deserted island in which the old one convinces the young one there is no such thing as the color red, because I had convinced my English teacher to let me write stories instead of tedious essays. Wayne came into the kitchen, took one look out the window, and barged out onto the back steps. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he bellowed.
Leila froze, shoulders hunched high. “You said we could play fetch?”
“Don’t pull that bullshit with me. I saw what you were doing. You were petting him, don’t pretend you weren’t. You’re just like your sister. Manipulative, conniving little—”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“You’re done. You’re banned. I don’t want you even playing fetch with him.” Wayne pounded down the steps and scooped the puppy up in one hand. “Can’t follow one damn instruction.”
Leila looked about to cry. And if there is one thing in all the world I cannot stand, it’s when my little sister or my mother cries. As Wayne stormed back into the house I said, “You know, you didn’t have to yell at her. She was just playing fetch.”
“No she wasn’t. She was petting him.”
“Then why did she have a stick in her hand?”
“Don’t talk back to me.”
“I’ll talk back to you if I want. You didn’t have to be such an asshole.” I was standing by now, tensed. I rarely defied Wayne these days. I tried to avoid him as much as I could. His temper was frightening, perhaps on the verge of physical violence, which is exactly what I wanted in that moment. If only he would hit me, really hit me, in the eye preferably, or at least in the head, my mother would snap out of her trance and leave him.
“Get out. Your mom can deal with you later, but get out of this house. Now.”
“Gladly,” I spat, stalking past him and his stupid puppy, wriggling in his hands. At the door I slipped into my mother’s pair of knee-high rubber boots, caked with mud. I eyed the row of coats, the pile of hats and scarves and gloves, strategically took none (to win greater sympathy later), and clomped down the wooden steps into the dirty, snow-covered fields behind the trailer. The frozen prairie stretched out before me, immense and punishing. A driving wind snatched away the heat of my anger within minutes, yet I walked for nearly an hour, past the irrigation ditch and the tiny roadside junkyard, all the way to the marsh sprawled at the base of low, rolling hills. I didn’t know what was on the other side of the hills. I’d never made it that far before.
As the sun went down, I finally gave in and turned around, stiff with cold. My mother met me near the snowed-in ditch at the edge of our property, bundled against the dusk in her poofy green coat, white snow boots, worn driving gloves, and purple wool hat. I saw her long before she saw me, a flashlight in one hand, head down, charging forward with the force of a mother I used to know—the one who’d barged into my Girl Scouts meeting and chewed out the leaders for letting me watch a PG13 movie without her permission, the one who’d demanded Wayne stop the car on their second date because her children were in the back seat and if he couldn’t turn the music down to a tolerable level this family date was over, the one who’d dragged me back to the store after I’d stolen a pack of gum and made me quit crying long enough to apologize to the manager, even though she knew I would hate her for it, wouldn’t understand for years that she did it out of love. When I reached her I knew I had won a battle in the war against Wayne the Pain (a nickname she was soon to invent). Her jaw was squared, her lips pressed thin, her eyebrows drawn together.
“You did not have to leave the house. He shouldn’t have said that.” She peered at me in the dark. “Why didn’t you take any warm clothes?” As she took off her coat, I mumbled something about how she wasn’t there to defend me.
“I’m sorry,” she pleaded. “I know things have been really bad lately. I don’t know what to do any more. This isn’t how I pictured things working out.”
I settled into my mother’s coat, warm from her body. I asked what I had been wondering for years. “Why do you stay with him?”
She pretended not to hear.
We walked, listening to our boots pushing through the snow. By this time we needed the flashlight to light the way. And then she stopped and asked me, “What should I do?” She. Asked me. I was fifteen years old. And I knew she had to leave him.
Because I’m a tough, pink-hating tomboy. I wear boys’ pants slung low on my waist because tapered girl pants suck and I want to look like a skater chick. I don’t hide scars, I flaunt them, unless I made the scars myself, and then I flaunt them to a select few people who will not ask questions, just be in awe of my toughness. I fantasize about getting in fist fights, kicking in doors, being shot, running and jumping over wide crevasses…
I am a year-round athlete. In the fall I play pickup games of basketball with boys on the gravel-strewn court outside the gym before practice. I’m not afraid to screen the guys, no matter how big they are. I like the contact, the crash, the struggle for balance, the incredulousness that a girl has scraped them off another player like an axe splitting wood. In the winter, I dominate the net. I am a blocking queen. I am famous for the two times I spiked volleyballs into opposing players’ faces. One girl—a small, blonde setter with big eyes—cried, and had to be taken out of the game to nurse her nose with an ice pack. At the end of the game (which we won) she refused to slap my hand in the “good game, good game, good game” lineup. In the spring I am a small town track star. I outrun everyone in the division in the 800 meter dash and place at state. At the finish line I keep running, right to the row of trash cans, where I puke up breakfast.
Boot camp? Yeah, I got that.
Because for as long as I can remember, my mother has agonized about money. For good reason. She was a single mother of three with a bad back, determined to go back to school and earn her bachelor’s degree without an ounce of help from anyone. Once, walking with my mother in the mall to use my coupon for a free pizza from Pizza Hut because I’d reached some fifth-grade reading goal, I held out my hand to her. I wanted to hold her hand.
“What?” she asked.
I stretched my hand further toward her.
“What do you want?”
I answered, “I want to hold your hand.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “I thought you wanted me to give you money.”
My mother is a very vocal person. She works out her problems aloud. Therefore, at a very young age I knew my mother felt humiliated to have to accept Welfare. “I hate it! I hate using food stamps. I hate reporting every little bit of money I get. Do you know I have to lie to them about Grandma sending money every month?” I knew the only reason I was getting braces in the second grade to fix my hopelessly crooked teeth was “because your father has to pay two-thirds of any dental work as part of child support.” I knew about spikes in the price of milk. “Milk has gone up a whole dollar since spring,” she griped in the supermarket. “Milk is a staple. It’s like bread. I can count on bread being a dollar a loaf. If milk goes up, then cheese goes up and probably yogurt too. Right now I can get cheese for…”
After my mother got off Welfare, I knew she was in debt from college loans, and that this debt hung over her head like a violent electrical storm. Every time she switched jobs or had to pay for a car repair or some other expense, she recalculated how many years and months it would take to be debt free. She ingrained horror stories, such as, her best friend was still in debt, after having gone to college twenty years ago.
When I was in high school my mother and Wayne rationed “expensive” foods like peanut butter and cheese. Three servings a week. Then I was scolded for eating alternatives, like crackers or cereal or carrots with ranch dressing, because now that they thought about it, crackers, cereal and ranch dressing were expensive too. Later, my mother’s financial situation sunk lower yet when she divorced Wayne. He promptly declared bankruptcy, and because my mother couldn’t afford to pay off the tools for his wood shop he bought with their credit card, she also declared bankruptcy. Debts from bankruptcy haunt you for seven years. Seven years must pass before the red mar is erased from your credit report.
When joining the National Guard, you must sign a six-year contract. Just six years in return for no debt. Yes. I will be smarter. I have a plan.
Because my older sister, renowned for voicing her opinions as if they were law, famous for her scathing criticisms, does not talk me out of it. She does not say, “I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.” She does not say “You know, college really doesn’t cost that much, especially at the University of Montana.” She does not say, “I think you’re making a mistake. You don’t belong in the Army” or “Why don’t you wait until after a year of college and then decide?” Instead she asks, “Are you sure?”
When Leila and I were in grade school we loved to pretend we were secret agents or treasure hunters or merely struggling survivors of some natural catastrophe, like hot lava floes. One summer we decided we needed to arm ourselves with water guns. We bought the cheapest we could find with our dollar-a-week allowance money, two pistol-shaped pieces of plastic. When our mother saw us filling the guns under the kitchen sink, her face tightened.
“If you really want to play with those, then at least keep them out of my sight. It bothers me to see you girls playing with guns. They’re too realistic.”
The toys were ridiculously unrealistic: neon yellow and orange. We didn’t understand her concern. But instead of asking “why” we simply hid them under our bathroom sink when we weren’t outside, running and diving with them, shooting at each other or at invisible enemies from behind trees, holding stake-outs to ambush our older sister.
Despite her hatred of guns, my mother lets me join up. She thinks about it for a while, then decides that I should think about it for a month. If I’m sure after all that thinking, she will co-sign, since 17-year-olds need co-signers.
My father? He’s so out of the picture, living with his second family on a Crow Indian reservation, (although he’s not Native American, just wishes he was), that I never think to ask him. Later, I realize he probably would have counseled me against it.
Because I am a woman. If anything were to happen, as unlikely as that would be, I will not be on the front lines. They don’t allow women on the front lines or in the infantry. I will only be helping, supplying, supporting the people doing the actual killing, actual fighting. Can I kill someone? I don’t think so. But there’s no need for that. The National Guard protects the state, sometimes the nation if the natural disaster is big enough.
Because I believe my recruiter when he says I can join first as a fueler and then switch into the Press Corps as soon as a position opens up. “These jobs are just temporary. Once you’re in, you can train to be anything you want.” How convenient. I want to be a writer. I want to be a journalist, in and out of uniform.
Later I will learn that there are so few positions in the Press Corps in Montana that I will have to wait until someone retires to get a slot. Later, I will learn that even my own recruiter is frustrated by where he is, what he is doing. He wants to join artillery or some other macho, war-toy swollen field. But instead, he’s stuck luring in fresh blood while the getting is good. I’m stuck pumping gas.
Because I am seventeen. Seventeen. My brain is not fully developed. You know what I did the other day, the first time I got my hands on some Peppermint Schnapps? A boy poured me a glass of it and dared me to drink the whole thing like water and I did cause it didn’t taste like crap at all, which I expected it would, no it tasted like tasty candy and I drank the whole thing and then about half an hour later, I started puking and seeing quadruple. Yeah, quadruple! People talk about seeing double when they’re fucked up so I must have been double fucked up, right?
I like riding on the roof of my friend’s car, hanging on to nothing. This one day, she drives out past the old Gebo Cemetery, way into the back country on roads that haven’t been used by anything but cattle in years and years and as we’re jouncing along I take off my seat belt and hang out the window and when that’s not enough I climb out the window and onto the roof where I insist on staying until we come out past the cemetery again and then I have to stand on the roof of her Jeep and touch the Gebo sign as we pass under. If I had to kill whatever I ate, I would be a vegetarian. Last month I was dating this guy who I had no interest in whatsoever other than he was a good kisser, but then he rubbed snow in an annoying kid’s face and the kid’s mom pressed charges and because he’s 18 he went to jail for a day and then we had to break up because the police said he can’t cross the line into Carbon County and that’s okay with me.
I don’t get grammar rules, or taxes or what makes someone a Democrat or Republican or why people think pot’s so terrible or why you have to have chains to go over passes or how birth control really works. I mean really, it’s miraculous—you just take a little white pill and then you’re pregnancy cured? Sweet. I wonder why I can sign up for six years of military service but I can’t vote, smoke, drink, serve as a juror, or run for office?
Because it is November of 2000. September 11th is a meaningless date. I believe I’m going to spend just one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer practicing this Army thing. I believe the only time I’ll be “called up” is to fight fires in the summer, a detail that does not discourage me, but entices me, as does the promise of practicing this Army thing in Germany for a few months every few years. That’s when the Germans take you in and show you how it works over there. For instance, if you hold up one finger to a German bartender he’ll think you’re ordering two beers because over there, they count thumbs first.
When my mother asks the recruiter what the chances are of there being a conflict—of me ever fighting overseas in a war—he furrows his beautiful eyebrows and sets his paperwork down on our kitchen table. “War? Well the United States hasn’t been in a war in...? Well, decades. Not since Vietnam. The Gulf War doesn’t really count, and that was… ten years ago.” He says this slowly, skeptically, as if he has not given this much thought, as if the very idea of America going to war in the near, or even far future, is absurd. At the word Vietnam, there is an unspoken understanding between us all that the war there was a quagmire, a disaster, a horrible mistake the country has learned from. I’m seventeen, and even I know that. No one would ever let Vietnam happen again. We are above that now. We are smarter. We are more sophisticated. Yes. War? War is a distant abstraction. Wars happen in the past. My grandfather’s time, my uncle’s time.
Less than a year later, I’m sitting on the couch next to my older sister, in her living room. We are watching footage of American and British missiles flying in the dark, darting green across the night landscape of Afghanistan. I sit very stiff and still, unblinking, hanging on the forecasters’ words, searching for something to grasp on to, grasping for some kind of comprehension. But the only thing that happens is the air in the room seems to grow darker, and the light from the TV seems to grow brighter, and alarm leeches into my every pore.
“What will happen to you?” my sister asks.
I shake my head slowly, and hear myself say, “I don’t know.”