September 7, 2007
“What am I doing here?” I whispered, but saying the words aloud didn’t give me any further insight. The seconds ticked by. The hourglass of my life sifted away from me, one grain of sand at a time. Being deployed in one of the most dangerous places on planet Earth, I considered my mortality far too often. How long did I have left? How would I spend it? Two questions a twenty-six-year-old should not be asking.
It was my last guard duty, on my last deployment. Military life was not for me. After six years serving, I knew it, and the Army knew it. When I had explained my job as a military journalist to my family, it had all sounded so much more exciting than it turned out to be. I couldn’t stomach the idea of another year of soldiering. Being assigned to guard duty instead of working on the camp magazine was like sticking a fork in me—I was done. Instead of writing stories and using my degree, I was trying not to fall asleep on my M16. It was loaded, after all. Sure, the money was great, but as an investment in my own sanity, I was getting out.
“McCoy, it’s quitting time, you lucky…” The voice of Private First Class Jacob Glass trailed off as he yelled up the steps of the guard tower. He thankfully stopped himself before he said something degrading. This was the new world order where educated, empowered women were also stuck on watch.
I briefed Glass on the day’s inactivity and cleared my weapon in a nearby container. I packed my gear in the small pockets of my Camelbak and headed down the ancient steps of the station. No one had to tell me twice.
As I walked to the dining facility, I tried to make my meal options sound appealing. A hot meal was never a possibility when working a shift that ended just before midnight. The second shift guards received bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers after the local cooks stopped serving at eight p.m. My only hope was for a stocked salad bar and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
After I assembled a chicken salad for dinner, I added the sun-dried tomato salad dressing my little sister had sent me from home. I was a foodie at heart. I valued my slim hips, so I had to be creative with my meals.
I grabbed a Styrofoam container at the beginning of the line and took my dinner to go.
On the walk to my room, I took a good look around. The way the endless black sky continued was beautiful. I thought about my family far away. I considered my grandma smoking her nightly cigarette on the porch in her southern Missouri home. They were under this sky, too, in some other time.
As I entered the cramped living quarters, I saw my roommate and best friend of six years, Sergeant Concepcion Chapa. I owed her my life literally and figuratively after an amateur move on my part. It had happened when we were running near the base; she ran ahead and tripped me. I fell to my knees, and she pulled my T-shirt, dragging me back toward her. I pulled my headphones out , “Why’d you trip me?”
She pointed ahead on the path where a horned viper head peeked out while its body was burrowed under the sand. With a combat boot, snakes were less threatening, but with tennis shoes and bare calves, hemorrhagic bleeding wasn’t how I wanted to go out. I never let her run ahead again.
She was watching a pirated copy of one of the latest popular movies back in the States. With her headphones on, she didn’t hear me come in. I set my food down and jumped on the bed, where her tiny frame was sprawled out in front of my MacBook Pro.
“Dammit, McCoy, you ruined the sexy mood I was creating in my head. This is the best part,” she said. A very naked eighteen-year-old muscular man was having fake sex with a plastic surgeon’s golden ticket, a forty-something blonde cougar.
“Monkey puke, monkey puke,” I lifted her earphones off her head. The phrase monkey puke was something my dad sang when the brief sex scenes of movies raced by my young eyes. He was too lazy to fast-forward, and movie night was too sacred of a time to put my sisters and me to bed early. I later decided this was the reason I became shy during all nude and kissing scenes. Concepcion knew about my aversion to nudity and used it against me whenever possible.
After I riled my battle buddy, I walked to the communal bathroom to get ready for the night. Searching the mirror, I smiled at my reflection, an old habit for applying makeup. At five feet nine inches, I was taller than many other female soldiers, but less elegant or sophisticated than the rest of the women in my family. Instead of waif-thin, I was lean and athletic, my coffee-colored long hair pulled back, making my features look harsh in the halogen lights. I considered how soon it would be until I would be able to wear my hair down for good. The strands were breaking off after being in a tight bun throughout the years.
I examined my pores up close and thanked my expensive and rigorous skincare regimen. My time there was showing on my face, and no amount of miracle cream could fix my sunken eyes perpetually looking tired. They were supposed to be my best feature, according to Concepcion. They changed in intensity, from shades of green to hazel, as often as my mood. As a Gemini, I was a different person depending on the day. I would pay for these years of stress on my body.
I heard the door of the bathroom open and close while I had my face pressed up to the mirror. In another world, I would be able to obsess in private, but not in the Army. Before I could see who it was, a hand slapped my toweled behind. Concepcion. Payback was sooner than I imagined.
“Get out of your head, girl. You’ll get another migraine.”
I turned around and shook my head. I didn’t respond. What she said was true. My migraine diagnosis was another check in the “con” category for staying in the service.
I listened as the water turned on. I hoped Concepcion hadn’t moved my stuff away from the good shower. I needed hot water to release some of the tension in my shoulders from holding up a gun all day. The good shower meant temperature control was possible. I looked in the mirror to see her taking the shower next to mine. Good girl.
“Are you ready to be out of this sandbox?” The noise of the shower between us. “Can I get a hell yeah, Sergeant?”
“What are you saying?” She didn’t hear me.
Showers here were mostly private, but I was feeling giddy about leaving this place. As much as I bitched, we were lucky we had running water. It was worse in Afghanistan.
Concepcion sang out louder so I could hear. She did a great Cher impression, and I could tell she was also in a good mood for our last night.
I peeked outside the shower stall to see if anyone else had come in since I’d entered. I wasn’t ready to entertain the whole camp.
I screamed out the next verse while I rubbed some remaining sand into my skin, exfoliating the sweat as best I could. Her energy was infectious. She was as excited as I was to get back home. I was going to miss our Cher-in-the-shower time.
Concepcion’s voice was stronger than mine, but that was okay with me. My stomach dropped a bit when I considered leaving her at the airport. Like the Army, she was a constant in my life. She’d saved me from myself more than a few times. I was going to miss my friend.