05 March 2013

The Veterinarian

I wrote this piece in my last year of high school. Definitely didn't do any research so blame any factual inaccuracies on that! Its an uncharacteristic story for me - aimlessly cynical, bordering on nihilistic. The narrator's voice isn't my own, obviously, and all I really did was let him tell his story. He says some stuff I don't like, and some stuff I can relate to.

 Shit, I was probably doomed from the beginning, or blessed, if you're into that sort of thing. Looking back, I can see that what happened had to happen. After that night, everything else was inevitable. Funny though, how so much of your life can depend on one moment. The next two years of my existence determined by signing a few papers one Saturday morning. Back when it started, God - how long ago was it? - eleven years, I think; we were just a few months away from graduation.

Jason, you remember Jason right? Anyway, he had just got his acceptance letter to Stanford, he was going to study physics, I think. Hell of a smart guy, Jason; he has... had it all going for him. We went out and partied that Friday, the five of us, four if you don't count Mark. He was always the odd one out. But he showed up anyway, walking his little shuffle, lips slightly apart, with that god-awful Aerosmith sweater, always too small and a bit grungy.

He probably turned out the best of us, for all his awkwardness. Life is funny like that. I hear he got married, made a bundle in software. Lives in London, I think. We kinda lost touch after that summer. Mark - man, I should call him. He probably still has that sweater.

We all met freshman year: Reswan was my roommate, and he knew Dennis and Mark from high school. I was always surprised that Reswan made it into college; he got a soccer scholarship, but he was never too good. His real passion was girls, always had one, or five. He tended to attract stares, a five foot Sri-Lankan with a girl wrapped around him, usually a good three or four inches taller than he was. His dark eyes and skin and long black hair looked odd against his customary tie-dyed shirts and frayed jeans.

But yeah, right, the party. Anyway, we all met there, Reswan didn't have a girl, I remember being surprised at that, but he told me that some things were too important to bring a chick to. Dennis was the last guy there. Always showing up late. I hear he actually missed his sister's wedding that way. Dennis was a jock, tanned and buff like a Greek hero of old. You had to feel bad for him, he was pretty smart in his own way, and was attractive enough to cause suspicion amongst the female campus population; he only had eyes for Reswan. Kinda strange when he told us, but I guess we all got used to it. Life is funny like that sometimes; you always want what you can't have.

I can't really remember who brought it up. Seems like something I would say. I mean, besides Jason, we didn't have plans after college. I had thought about the Army a lot; my dad and his dad were both NavyDefinitely didn't do any research so blame any factual inaccuracies on that! men, marines, and I knew it would piss the hell out of them if I enlisted. My dad especially, he rarely brought it up, but when he did, you could almost see the scars that had been branded into his psyche from a mere six months on the deck of a riverboat.

We gave a toast to Jason, who for his part was grinning the whole time. His gums were his most prominent feature, appearing like a bloody fringe whenever he pulled back his lips. Anyway, it was after probably the third round of beers that we started talking in earnest about the Army. Mark, of course, was completely against it. He had recently got into the whole Buddhism and Karma crap, golden rule and all. Didn't seem like the type. I wonder if he's still into that... I really gotta call him. The rest of us thought it was a pretty damn good idea. I mean, you can blame the media or video games or music or whatever else is the buzzword today, but nothing excites a young man like the thought of ending the life of another young man. God, when you're 22 years old, you can live forever.

We lost count of the beers, Reswan said it was on him, his parents were loaded, both neurosurgeons - making more each year than most Americans would in a decade. They sent him a damn car for his birthday one year, a new one too. Mark started getting more and more heated up, his pale cheeks getting flushed red as he denounced the Army. "Turning Young Men into Dead Men," he said. Of course we weren't listening. Reswan and I were fully committed to joining the next day, and of course Dennis would follow Reswan anywhere. Poor guy.

The night ended badly, Mark left early in a huff, and then Reswan found some hcick to take him home, which only upset Dennis. Pretty soon it was just Jason and I. His body always seemed too small for his head, and his lanky frame fit strangely into any seat. I knew Jason the longest, we met at a summer job before college. He grinned as he flipped burgers, he was always grinning. We talked; he stretched, yawned, left. And then I was alone.

I often hear the question, "If you could go back, would you have gone?" And I don't know what to say. Life is funny; things can seem so clear when you do them, but when you look back you just don't know. It doesn't really matter in the end. I can't go back, I can't ever go back, so why linger?

Speaking from my own experience, we all woke up in bad shape. My brain felt like the energizer bunny was running a marathon inside, hitting his damn drum again and again. BOOM. BOOM. I got up and opened the window. BOOM. Somehow I managed to wake up Reswan, who had returned about an hour before with no pants. Together we went across the hall to get Dennis. BOOM. He got dressed quickly, and we all went down to the breakfast hall.

"Shit guys. We really gonna do this?" I asked, more to reassure myself that my voice still worked than anything.

"I'm still for it. What the hell else would we do?" Reswan gave the verdict. We were in it now, no turning back. The proud, the few, the fools. Drum roll please.

The rest of the morning was pretty blurry. We stumbled into the recruiting office, hangovers and all, a bunch of drunken college Boys. Less than an hour later we were Men, told to report back there on the Monday after graduation. Sitting outside on a bench was Jason, letter from Stanford in his hand. The words he spoke next were neither expected nor a surprise, they just sort of came out, not even a ripple in the flow of the day, "I'm going too."

So, there we were. Defenders of the free world. We knew that we would be sent to Iraq, there was never any question about that. We called our parents, said our goodbyes, they weren't happy, and we all cried at one point or another. Damn I miss Dad, he never understood, never could understand me.

The rest of the year passed without event. Mark seemed to forgive us, but our friendship was never the same. He got accepted to MIT, and was going home a day after we left. Life is funny sometimes. Everything happens, the world turns, people grow, and you just stand still.

Graduation came around, we sat, waited to be called, and just as easily, passed out of college and into the army. Sunday arrived, we said goodbye to Mark. He was wearing the sweater, as always, his curly hair cut short. Strange, I can't remember the last thing I said to him. I need to call him sometime, catch up on old times.

Monday saw us all out in the fog, the remnants of a summer storm still weighed down oppressively on the earth. The bus appeared out of the murk, and we filed on with about seven others from our class. The door squealed shut, and we were off. Our home for the last four years had just been left behind forever.

You see in movies and books that boot camp is hell on earth, but you can survive it. Everyone gets humiliated a few times. One in six marines wets his bed in the first two weeks. Basically, you just laugh at yourself, do what you're told, and after a few grueling months you are certified soldier material. Approved to kill for Uncle Sam. Dennis ended up as a helicopter pilot, and Reswan became a medic for one of those elite tank squads. Jason and I, probably the smartest of the group, ended up as grunts; we were both assigned a tour of duty in the north of Iraq, around Mosul.

Everyone usually wants to hear daring war stories, patriotic tales of heroism in the face of democracy-hating barbarians. Or sometimes they're looking for brutal accounts of the horrors of battle, with shattered and burning bodies. Truth is, there isn't much to tell. We did sweeps, frequently found nothing, living in fear of an attack that rarely came. The few times we did see battle, it was just some frantic gunfire and explosions, and then the tallying of the dead and wounded.

Occasionally Reswan and I meet and reminisce, but the meetings are becoming less and less frequent. He has a private practice in St. Paul, and he just got engaged. Can you imagine him married? I'm telling you, life is funny like that. He'll make a good father though; he seems to have a certain paternal instinct in him. Dennis survived the war too, but he lost most of his functions when his chopper went down. He lives with his sister now: the Greek hero who flew too close to the sun and burned.

Myself? I guess I can't complain too much. The blast that killed the rest of my squad spared me, taking my legs as a constant reminder of its mercy. The chaplain isn't the only one to say I am blessed. Shit, for all I know, I could be. From time to time, I find myself sitting by Jason's grave, wondering how holy he would feel in my position.

I'm a veterinarian now, always liked animals, you always know where you stand with an animal. Dating again too, more and more girls can overlook the wheelchair, someday I might be able to as well.

Life is funny sometimes, the problem is you just never know if you should be laughing or crying.