19. KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, KUWAIT, AND FLORIDA
Bugsy, Grandpa, and I were sitting around on the steps of the command building chain smoking and shirking whatever duty we were supposed to be doing when Gunny burst out of the command room.
“Hey, you two go on leave next week, right?” Gunny asked Bugsy and me.
“Yeah, why?” I asked.
“There’s a convoy going toward Kandahar Airfield in an hour, I’m putting you two on it. Go pack.” Gunny ordered.
“A week early?” I questioned.
“Don’t question that shit, man, you get to hang around the airfield for a week and then go home. That’s like a whole bonus week of leave!” Grandpa laughed, slapping me on my shoulder. He was right. The airfield had running water, real beds, internet, cable, you name it, and those lucky assholes had it. Bugsy and I quickly rushed to our living areas and started packing.
I wasn’t even really looking at what I was packing. I just shoved it blindly into a duffle bag. I had no civilian clothes anyway, so I only needed the uniform on my back and maybe some shorts. I was done with just enough time to give my weapons and ammo to Grandpa before I jumped into one of the trucks.
Eastwood’s platoon drove us slowly down Highway One toward the airfield. Highway One was the only semi-modern highway in all of Afghanistan. It was one of NATO’s first big reconstruction projects in the country. The highway made one giant loop around the entire country, passing through every major city. It looked just like any four-lane highway back in the U.S. It even had traffic lines that were dutifully painted on by hand.
The problem with only having one highway in an entire country filled with angry, murderous, terrorist groups was that it made for one hell of an easy target. The surface of the road was pockmarked with bomb craters and the burnt-out hulks of cargo trucks. Our convoy weaved around the craters, some of which were big enough to swallow our truck whole. It was the middle of the night so the road was abandoned. We were all on edge.
Thankfully we rolled through the airfield gates without incident. The airfield was such a big place, we still had about twenty minutes of driving to get to where we needed to go once inside its walls. Eastwood’s soldiers dropped us off at a small huddle of green tents and drove away.
Bugsy and I found our way into an office that had a sign outside that read “Slum Lord.” Inside was an Air Force guy who was so fat the buttons of his uniform were straining to hold together. The overweight Air Force guy assigned us our own tent in the corner of the compound.
The compound was recently a British army living area. Signs were posted everywhere telling me to “watch my mate’s back” and not to “have a bit too much ale at the pub” when we went home.
When the Brits left, the U.S. military turned it into their transient center for people going on leave. Thankfully, the Brits left behind about twenty shower trailers and several huge generators.
We dropped our bags off in our tent and were surprised to find shitty green cots instead of beds. Most of the cots were cracked or breaking. The fabric in the middle was torn and sagging. It was like finally going to Paris only to discover the whole place smelled like shit.
Bugsy and I shuffled to the showers. It had been the only thing on our minds since we arrived. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had a proper shower with actual hot water. I climbed inside the tiny shower stall. I had to kneel down a little bit to fit inside leaving the showerhead at about neck level.
There wasn’t a knob or anything that worked the water flow. Instead, it was a push button that would dispense hot water in ten-second bursts. I managed to wedge my body wash bottle at just the right angle to force the button to stay down and nearly scald me with hot water. It felt glorious.
I’m not sure how long I was in there, but it was long enough for a huge line of angry people to form outside. I finally got out and got dressed. I walked back across the compound and into our tent. Bugsy was already passed out on his cot snoring away. I climbed inside my sleeping bag and was asleep in seconds. I slept deeper and longer than I had since I’d left American soil.
I sat up in my cot; drool plastered across my unshaven face and saw it was still dark outside. Bugsy and I weren’t alone in the tent anymore; two more bodies filled the cots around us. Everyone was asleep. I looked down at my watch. It was around three in the morning. This confused me because I could have sworn we had gotten into our tents around four in the morning.
“Fuck, man, what day is it?” Bugsy asked, still half asleep.
“Thursday,” I said still a little confused. “I think we slept a whole day.”
“That explains why I am so goddamn hungry,” Bugsy said rifling through his discarded pants looking for his cigarettes. “Let’s go get some food.”
“The chow hall is closed,” I pointed out.
“Nah, man,” Bugsy said shaking his head. “They have a whole boardwalk area that never closes. They sell burgers and pizza and shit,” he informed me while clenching a cigarette between his teeth. Bugsy had spent a few days at the airfield learning to use some bomb detection robot that we had broken within a few days of receiving. He had learned his way around the airfield. “They have nightclubs and shit over there man. It’s crazy.”
“Yep. There’s still no booze or anything, but a bunch of Air Force POGs dance around to shitty music and grind up on each other.” POG is a derogatory term used by combat soldiers to insult the guys who don’t do any fighting. An old tank commander of mine explained to me it used to mean “Persons Other than Grunts,” but has since evolved to mean pretty much anyone whose job in the military isn’t combat related.
We got dressed and started to head toward the tent’s exit when we were stopped by a thunderous explosion that shook the ground. The air was full of a horrible shrieking noise that we both knew pretty well. The Taliban were launching rockets in the airfield’s general direction.
“That was a little close,” Bugsy giggled.
“That would be our luck—having a rocket land on us while we waited to go home on leave.” I shook my head. We decided to wait on our cross-base trip to the boardwalk until the rockets stopped falling. We stepped outside and watched the bright orange lights from the rocket’s motors streak overhead. On impact they lit up the horizon, landing on some unseen target off in the distance.
“That had better not be the fucking pizza place exploding,” Bugsy said.
“I hope it was the nightclub,” I countered.
Before long, the rockets died out and we started walking again. Normally on the airfield they had a bus service that stopped at every little compound and shuttled people to the areas of heavy traffic. But because it was so early, they weren’t running yet. The boardwalk was about three miles from our compound through the never-ceasing, terrible-smelling dust haze that always shrouded the airfield.
The airfield always stank of a mixture of burning rubber and human waste. Burning rubber from all the burn pits that lined the airfield’s outer walls, and human waste from the massive shit pond that had been built in the middle of the base. It was hard to discern which was worse.
The burn pits coughed out choking black smoke that never ceased being pumped into the air. All the airfield’s garbage was brought to these pits and set on fire by criminally underpaid Afghan laborers.
The one kind of waste that wasn’t burned was stored. Sometime during the early stages of our occupation here they had to figure out what they were going to do with thousands of soldiers’ shit and piss. One guy had the bright idea of digging a massive hole in the ground right in the middle of where everyone lived and dumping it all in there.
Since then, it had only grown in size and odor. Command had posted a sign at the banks of the shit lake that read, “Do not enter, extreme health hazard,” which might be the most unnecessary sign in human history. Shortly after that sign popped up, someone posted another sign next to it that read “No lifeguard on duty,” and hung a little ring buoy from the signpost.
Somehow Bugsy and I made it past the shit lake without passing out or vomiting. We came up on the boardwalk. It was a haphazard gathering of buildings built around a large wooden deck. In the middle of the vast area was a full soccer field, turfed with bright green fake grass.
Loud salsa music pumped through the night and bright neon Christmas lights hung from the edges of all the buildings. People were dancing all over the place, grinding and freak dancing on each other.
“Mother of God,” I gasped.
“I told you, man,” Bugsy said. I noticed a lot of the women were decked out in full makeup and were wearing the army-issued physical training uniform—a shorts and T-shirt combo we wore when we worked out. They had the shorts hiked up as far as they would go, exposing a fair amount of ass cheek.
I hadn’t seen so many women in months, and I couldn’t help staring as I tried to take it all in. I couldn’t even smell the shit lake anymore. The only thing I smelled was the combination of about one hundred different perfumes and body washes all clashing with each other.
“Look at all those bitches,” I stammered.
“Do you want to go try to dance with one of them?” Bugsy asked, laughing.
“Are you kidding me?” I squinted at him. “I don’t know how to dance. I’m too white for that.” I lit a cigarette. “Besides, I probably don’t even know what to do with a woman anymore.”
“Don’t tell the model that,” Bugsy said, reaching into my cigarette pack.
“Oh don’t worry, I fully plan on disappointing that poor girl.” I blew out a puff of smoke.
We walked into the boardwalk area and pushed past the grinding throngs of humanity. We passed a Fridays, a Burger King, and a Dairy Queen—all of which were packed. Bugsy was taking me to a tiny pizza place that was tucked away in the corner of the boardwalk. It was strangely empty.
A tiny weather-beaten old Filipino woman shuffled to our table and took our orders. I ordered a large pepperoni pizza entirely for myself, and Bugsy ordered a large sausage and pineapple pizza. Before long they were rushed out to us, piping hot and smelling so amazing it nearly left me speechless. Then I actually looked down at my pizza.
“What the fuck?” I cried. “These aren’t fucking pepperonis!” Instead of slices of pepperoni on the pizza I had paid fifteen dollars for, it was topped with slices of hotdogs. “This is goddamn heresy!”
“Quit being dramatic and eat your hotdog pizza,” Bugsy said between mouthfuls. I shut up and ate it. Even though my pizza made me think of a ten-year-old’s version of mac and cheese, it was probably the best thing I had eaten in six months. I downed the whole pizza in less than ten minutes and washed it down with a can of Fanta.
With our stomachs slightly distended from the massive amount of pizza we’d just eaten, we started making the hike back to our camp. The irritating salsa music was still pumping throughout the boardwalk and soldiers, marines, airmen, seamen, and civilians were all still grinding all over each other. We pushed our way through the sweating roiling mass of overly sexualized servicemen and women and made for the exit when the familiar sound of a robotic British woman piped from several huge loudspeakers.
“Rocket attack,” she said in a monotone, almost bored voice. Like the robot voice had been busy doing something else and was irritatingly interrupted to tell us about our impending death.
The crowds around us vanished, all making a dead sprint for the bunkers that were in the middle of the boardwalk area.
Bugsy and I stood there watching the herds of people running for their lives. We couldn’t even hear the rockets flying overhead, no shrieks, screams, or whistles. The rockets were nowhere close to landing on us. We ignored them and just kept walking down the boardwalk. We made it out to the road when a military police SUV pulled up and shined a flashlight out of the window and into our faces.
“Hey! Don’t you hear the sirens? Get to the bunkers!” one of the MPs yelled at us.
Bugsy, always the smartass, looked at the dark night sky and shrugged. “I don’t see any rockets,” he said.
“Just some assholes in a Toyota,” I laughed.
“Get your asses back to the bunkers!” the MP yelled angrily. We turned around and walked back toward the boardwalk, making sure to give the MPs the finger as we walked off.
The bunkers were so full of people, about half the boardwalk’s population was just sitting around them in the dirt. We sat down with them and waited for another siren to come over the loudspeakers to let us know that the rockets that never actually threatened us were gone.
We made the long hike back to the camp, collapsed back into our cots, and fell asleep.
It turned out being stuck at the airfield was a curse rather than a blessing. Time crawled by as we waited for our flight out of Afghanistan. We went back and ate at the pizza place nearly every day, bought tons of bootleg DVDs of varying quality from the kiosks on the boardwalk, and daydreamed about all the things we were going to do once we got to Florida.
Finally, mercifully, we got shoved onto a cargo plane with about one hundred other people and flown to Kuwait. Kuwait serves as a massive transient point for soldiers going to various warzones throughout the Middle East. Occasionally, it’s a springboard for an invasion or two. We were now at a different military airfield called Ali al Salem.
Ali al Salem was located in the middle of the barren Kuwaiti desert. Compared to Afghanistan, it was a paradise. All the tents had comfortable, real mattresses laid upon real bunk beds. Sure, the tents had a pretty bad rat problem, but getting bitten by a rat was better than getting bitten by a rocket.
Our first stop after finding a tent was the chow hall. It was open twenty-four hours a day and put no limit on how much you could eat. In Afghanistan, we were under pretty strict rations. All our food came in brown boxes called Unitized Group Ration or UGR-As. The UGR-As were mostly boil-in-a-bag kind of meals that were only a few steps up from an MRE. They were issued to outposts based on how much someone in some high command thought that specific number of soldiers should eat. The portion sizes were laughable and even though one of our cooks had a college degree from a legitimate traditional French cooking school, it all tasted like cardboard.
Bugsy and I attacked the Kuwaiti chow hall like we were starving inmates escaping a gulag. On my first plate, I had a little bit of breakfast, lunch, and dinner while Bugsy’s was mostly pie and ice cream. People were giving us strange looks as we went back for our third, fourth, and fifth plates of food. Eventually, a fat black guy in civilian clothes approached our table looking pissed.
“Excuse me, soldier, what the hell is on your face?” he hissed at me angrily.
I looked at Bugsy and pointed to my face. “Do I have food on my face?” I asked him.
“He means you haven’t shaved, dude,” Bugsy pointed out.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to offend you with my unshaven appearance. I just got off the plane from Afghanistan and was hungry.” What I said must have come out sounding a whole lot more sarcastic than I originally intended, because that made the fat black guy look even more pissed.
“Sir?” he screamed at me.
I squinted as little droplets of spit flew into my face.
“I am a goddamn Sergeant Major!” he kept screaming. “How about you stand at parade rest when you speak to me?”
Parade rest is a position the military makes you stand in when talking to a non-commissioned officer. You stand with your legs about shoulder-width apart and your hands clasped behind your back just above your ass with your head and eyes straightforward.
Bugsy and I slowly climbed to our feet and assumed the position of parade rest.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant Major, we didn’t know your rank,” Bugsy pointed out.
The sergeant major fished around in his pocket and pulled out his ID card. It had his picture and his status printed on it. “You didn’t know? It’s right here!” He shoved his ID in our faces as if we were somehow supposed to have seen it while it was buried in his pocket.
Bugsy and I shot each other confused looks.
“Now get out of my fucking chow hall and shave your goddamn faces!” he screamed.
“Roger, Sergeant Major,” I answered. There was never any point in attempting to correct any senior NCO about anything. We just left our food on the table and walked out of the chow hall.
That was when we ran into another soldier from our unit, Corporal Flip. He was standing outside the chow hall looking depressed. “Did that fat bastard kick you guys out too?” Flip asked.
“Yeah, Kassabian didn’t shave so we forfeited our right to nourishment. Why did he kick you out?” Bugsy asked.
“He said my hair was too long,” Flip whined, brushing his long black hair out of his eyes.
“We just aren’t pretty enough for food,” I laughed. We gave up and went back to our tents to sleep until our flight out of Kuwait took off in a few hours.
We were shoved into a convoy of Greyhound buses and sped off into the night through the Kuwaiti desert. Our bus convoy was surrounded by heavily armed Kuwaiti police trucks with lights flashing. I tried to go to sleep, but the constant honking from pissed off motorists that the police forced off the road kept me awake.
If there was one thing I learned about Kuwait during that drive to the airport, it was that there were more European supercars on that road than probably anywhere else in the world.
Our buses pulled right onto the airport’s tarmac next to a massive Boeing 747 that already had its engines roaring. It was pretty clear the Kuwaiti government wanted us out of there as fast as humanly possible. We all filed into the big plane and took our seats; poor little Bugsy was smashed in between Flip and me in the center section.
We all reached into our carry-on bags and pulled out boxes of cold medicine. It wasn’t our first time enduring the horrible eighteen-hour flight in the cramped confines of a government-chartered jet. The best way to do it, we knew, was to eat an entire box of cough and cold medicine at the beginning of the flight. It put you into something just short of a coma, and when you woke up, you were somewhere in America.
I soon blacked out in a pseudoephedrine haze and had the kind of vivid dreams you have after ingesting an entire box of over-the-counter cough medicine. Images of theoretical model girlfriends and gallons of booze danced through my head. I was awakened by the plane bouncing off the runway.
“Where the hell are we?” I managed, trying to clean away the sleep in my eyes.
“Atlanta, I think,” Bugsy answered, still half-drunk from the mixture of sleep and cough medicine. It was our final immigration check, and we got our government-funded tickets to our last destination.
Now, you would reasonably expect than an immigration check for returning soldiers would be incredibly easy. We don’t travel on passports, and it’s pretty clear where we’ve just come from. But that’s assuming the soldier hasn’t lost the little slip of paper given to him in Kuwait—the one that says he is a soldier returning to America on leave. You would have to be really stupid to do that.
So, of course, I’d lost my little slip of paper.
An astonishingly overweight TSA agent detained me by the immigration gate until I could prove I was, in fact, a U.S. soldier. There I stood in full camouflage, unshaven, and stinking like a Middle East hellhole, and he wanted more proof.
“I bet if you test my hands they’ll come back positive for explosives,” I said. Obviously, this was meant to be evidence that I had just come from a war zone, not that I was a terrorist.
The TSA agent looked mortified. He talked to someone over his radio and turned back to me. “Let me see your ID,” he said, looking annoyed.
I fished around in my pocket and pulled out my Department of Defense ID card.
“Okay, you’re good to go,” he mumbled and officially let me into the United States of America. I rolled my eyes because one of the first things I’d done when he first detained me was to show him my ID card and he said it wasn’t good enough. I picked up my bag and sprinted past the TSA agent.
I was supposed to be on the same flight as Bugsy. A flight that was taking off in five minutes. You would be surprised how quickly people get out of the way of a crazed-looking soldier running as fast as he can through crowds of people. I parted that sea of people like Moses.
I made it through the tunnel right before they closed it and sat down next to Bugsy in the cramped plane. We were still a little loopy from cough medicine but were too excited to fall asleep. He had his wife and baby girl waiting for him at the airport, and I had Brooke—the girl who was apparently dying to meet me.
We had hit it off over the internet over the last few months, and she was going to meet me at the airport with Bugsy’s wife. I kept having Bugsy reassure me that she was real, that this wasn’t a giant joke at my expense. Honestly, if it were anyone other than Bugsy, I wouldn’t have trusted them.
As our little plane descended into Florida, a beautiful coast came into view. Rows of palm trees and sandy beaches, the sun glinting off the blue ocean. It was the best thing I’d seen in six months.
“Holy shit, look at this place, man!” I gasped.
“I know,” Bugsy rolled his eyes. “I grew up here.”
“Why did you ever join the army?” I shook my head. “If I got to look at this every day, I never would have left home!” I was from Metro Detroit. The only thing to see around there was homeless people, potholes, and drunk autoworkers.
“I never said I was from this part of Tampa,” Bugsy said, laughing.
Our plane bounced as it hit the runway and I pressed my face against the window with a huge child-like grin on my face. After what felt like an eternity, our plane made it to the terminal and the doors opened. We were sitting in the back of the plane and forced our way out of the door first.
Standing at the gate was Bugsy’s wife Alissa, a short woman with librarian glasses, several piercings, and olive skin. A tiny human was clinging to her hand. Before we deployed, his daughter didn’t yet stand or walk. Now there she was standing in front of us, and she took off running toward her father.
Behind Alissa was a short girl with bright blonde hair. She swept her bangs aside when she saw me, flashing icy blue eyes. She smiled. I stood there frozen like an idiot. I wasn’t really sure what to do next. Was I supposed to hug her? We didn’t technically know each other. Not in the real sense.
Luckily she broke the ice. She walked up and wrapped her arms around me. I suddenly remembered I was wearing the same tattered, nasty uniform that I left Spartan Base in and hadn’t showered in about two days. She didn’t seem to notice or care. I was overtaken by her perfume, and I tried and failed to find words.
“Hey,” Brooke said softly. She smiled a little smile that showed her nearly perfect teeth.
“Hey,” I managed to get out. “Nice to finally meet you.”
“Yeah.” She laughed a little. I felt like a giggling schoolboy. I just stood there smiling like an idiot. I felt giddy and had butterflies churning through my stomach.
“Since you guys don’t have clothes, we are going to go to the mall, is that cool?” Alissa asked. I just nodded. Brooke and I were too busy staring at each other like idiots to say anything.
We piled into Alissa’s car and headed off to the local mall. We made small talk, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was far too busy staring at the woman who was holding my hand and looking out the window at the beautiful Tampa Bay scenery.
Bugsy’s daughter babbled away next to me in her car seat. I kept putting her snacks back into the car seat’s cup holders after she’d thrown them at me.
Once inside the mall, I was taken aback by the massive crowd of people. I hadn’t seen so many people in one place in a long time. I stopped in my tracks taking it all in. My heart started slamming into my chest, and I had trouble breathing. My eyes darted everywhere, looking at every person that passed up and down.
I tried to look into every single bag they were holding, I suddenly felt incredibly naked and unarmed. I looked over at Bugsy, and he was doing the same thing. We were both having panic attacks. We were having fucking panic attacks in a mall.
“It’s okay,” Brooke cooed, urging me forward into the mall. She reassured me by squeezing my hand in hers as I forced myself to walk forward.
After a few minutes, I managed to put on a face of total calm. Brooke wasn’t aware that underneath my calm exterior there was abject terror. It would be hard to explain to her that she waited for some war hero to come home, and he was scared shitless of the local mall.
Bugsy was trying to do the same thing on his end. Putting on a façade for his wife while he was screaming inside.
We happened to be in the yuppie mall of Tampa. I had never even heard of most of the stores. I wasn’t really sure on where to start looking for clothes.
“What store do you want to start at?” I asked Bugsy.
“Not a clue. I just kind of figured the women would pick the clothes out for us.” He shrugged. We wandered into a few different stores, and Brooke picked out a few pairs of pants and shirts for me.
I paid some obscene amount of money before walking out. I ducked into the nearby bathroom and changed out of my tattered uniform. I looked in the scuffed up bathroom mirror and sized myself up in my new civilian clothes.
My skin, which was normally pasty-white, had a dark tan from months of the unbearable Afghan summer. My cheeks were sunken from endless patrolling and uncontrollable sweating. New wrinkles had set in above my eyes and each side of my mouth. I was balding. It wasn’t the face I had left America with.
I walked back out into the mall to meet Brooke, who gave me another hug and told me how I looked like a human again. We held hands and walked back to the car. We started making our way to Bugsy’s mother-in-law’s house. As we drove across several bridges out of Tampa and into the suburbs, my eyes were glued to the road.
Every box or garbage bag we passed made my heart skip a beat. Every time a trailing car got too close to us, I was suddenly nervous. At that second there was no difference between the route we took in Kandahar and that highway in Florida. Everything was a threat.
I didn’t notice I was breathing hard or sweating, but Brooke did. She put her hand on my thigh and smiled at me. I sat back in my seat and tried not to focus on the war zone I had created in my head.
We arrived at a small house in the Tampa suburbs. I had to say goodbye to Brooke. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to get the whole day off and had to go back to work. We hugged and I lingered a bit too long looking into her eyes. I tried to work up the courage to kiss her, but it never came. She never leaned in toward me, either. I got her phone number, and she headed back to work.
We were all supposed to go out that night and, for Bugsy and me, get drunk for the first time in half a year. I laid down on the couch and fell asleep quicker than I thought possible. I was awakened later in the day by Bugsy. I quickly rolled over and checked my phone to see if Brooke tried to call or text me, but there were no notifications.
“So what did you want to do tonight?” Bugsy asked.
“Dumb question,” I laughed. “We’re getting shitfaced.”
“Just making sure. You hear from Brooke?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m assuming she’s busy at work or something.”
“Shitty,” Bugsy said, setting down a six pack of beer. “Let’s start pre-gaming.” We cracked a few beers between us and started drinking.
Drinking is completely banned in war zones for the U.S. military. This made my tolerance go from being able to drink a bottle of whiskey in one sitting—a skill honed by my years in the army—to being a little buzzed from a couple of beers. We kept drinking as we waited for Brooke to get off work and for Alissa to get ready to go out.
“Brooke’s going to meet us at the bar,” Alissa said dusting on another layer of makeup.
We jumped in Alissa’s car and headed off to the bar. It was a small place that had cornhole and beer pong games going on. Throngs of people were sitting around enjoying the warm Tampa night air.
Bugsy and I started doing shots, which was probably a bad idea as we were already a little drunk. I was trying to steady my nerves for when Brooke showed up. I had been such a nervous wreck when I met her the first time that I was afraid I’d made a huge ass of myself. After a few shots, Bugsy and I signed up for beer pong.
There was a large March Madness style bracket set up on the wall with team names written in. Bugsy and I were “The Stepfathers.” We explained to our opponents it was because they hated us and we’d fucked their moms. No one else seemed to find it as funny as Bugsy and I did.
We won our first few games. I was talking so much drunken trash that people just started throwing the ball at my face rather than the cups. Bugsy, looking like the Penguin with a cigarette at the end of a long filter clenched between his teeth, was cackling like a madman next to me. We kept winning and kept drinking and at some point Bugsy had to run outside to puke. That was my last clear memory. At some point, Alissa managed to put us into a car and get us back to the house.
I woke up soaking wet and naked on the couch. There was water all over the place. It drenched the couch I was lying on and was pooled on the kitchen floor where my clothes sat in a heap. My head felt as if it had been split open by a jackhammer and my mouth tasted like whiskey and vomit.
I climbed into the shower to wash off the night and tried to mop up some of the mystery water. I put the couch cushions outside to dry in the warm air and checked my phone. Brooke hadn’t returned any calls or texts, and she’d never shown up at the bar.
As I sat there in my only other pair of shorts trying to nurse my exploding brain I couldn’t help feeling that I had been stood up. I sent her another text message.
“Is everything okay?” I wasn’t really sure what to say. I had never been in that situation before. Surprisingly, this time she texted me back.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore,” she replied.
“Can’t do what?” I typed back. I was pretty confused. What couldn’t she do anymore? We hadn’t done anything in the first place. She never answered, and I never heard another word from her. I was crushed.
Did I scare her off when I first awkwardly got off the plane and had no idea how to talk to her? Or when I broke down into a panic attack in the mall or on the road? What the fuck was so wrong with me that I could take a girl who was infatuated with me for months and terrify her in the span of just a few hours?
I didn’t know how to process the whole thing. From the time I had enlisted in the army at seventeen, I had been on a constantly rotating deployment cycle. I had no meaningful connections with other people. Like most soldiers, the only way I knew how to express my emotions was through heavy drinking and outbursts of anger.
I walked to the corner store and started hitting the bottle. Bugsy joined in shortly. The stress of family life, even in that short amount of time, was driving him insane.
It’s nearly impossible to step off that plane from a war zone and slip right back into whatever role you had before. Bugsy was having a hard time falling back into the role of father and husband. He was sitting on the curb with me taking swigs from a bottle of cheap whiskey.
We didn’t need to say anything to each other to know what was going through each of our heads. For the majority of the trip,we didn’t sleep, eat, or socialize with anyone. We just sat next to each other in silence drinking or chain smoking. We were both totally lost.
Alissa managed to get us to go out for Halloween. We went to get costumes at the last second so all the good ones were already taken. Bugsy dressed up like Hunter S. Thompson, circa Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Alissa dressed up like a slutty cab driver, and I dressed up as Jesus.
We started drinking at the house and eventually went out to a bar that was on the ocean shore in downtown Tampa. Bugsy got shit-faced drunk, entered a costume contest, and won. He even beat some girl who dressed up as Jasmine from Aladdin and had taken her shirt off onstage.
I hit the bar and drew a lot of attention in my crown of thorns and robes. Girls kept coming up and stealing my crown of thorns. I would have to stumble after them drunkenly to take it back. The night came to an end with Bugsy and me vomiting on the beach under the evening stars and collapsing into the sand.
“I fucking hate this place,” I slurred.
“Tampa? I thought you liked it here,” Bugsy said sitting up and spitting out a mouthful of sand.
“No, America,” I said. “All these assholes pass through life without a care, but they still bitch and complain about every little thing.”
“You mean like you’re doing now?” Bugsy laughed to himself.
“Fuck you. We just came from a country where there’s no clean water, hospitals, schools, and mother fuckers randomly throw acid on girls for showing their ankles. Yesterday I heard someone bitch about getting their soy whatever-the-fuck latte a few minutes late.”
“They’re pussies. You can’t hate them for being pussies, it’s just who they are.”
“Stop making sense; I’m drunk and angry,” I whined punching the sand. He laughed and handed me a cigarette. I lit it and angrily rolled it back and forth in my teeth. We sat there in silence until Alissa came outside and yelled at us.
We got up, brushed ourselves off, and got back into the car. No one said anything on our way back to the house. I was still drunk and pissed. Alissa was fighting back the various emotions that come with having to say goodbye to her husband yet again the next day. I think Bugsy passed out.
When the time came for us to depart, the Bugsy family and I slowly walked through the airport to our gate in silence. I stood in front of the gate awkwardly as they said their goodbyes to each other. Alissa hugged me and asked me to keep Bugsy safe, to which there is nothing you can say. Bugsy and I turned around and walked down the tunnel not looking back. We sat in our seats and watched as Tampa slowly vanished from our view.