When I got out of the Navy, I joined the Navy again. It wasn’t immediate. I waited three months, but I couldn’t get a job. People say I should have waited longer. My mother, in particular, says I should have waited longer, but I could just tell it wasn’t going to happen. When I graduated high school, I told my parents I was going to go to the University of Detroit. This was the best school I had ever heard of. I’d never even heard of Stanford or M.I.T. Never. I grew up in a town so rural that even the state’s poet laureate would refuse to write a poem about it, except we had no poet laureate. We barely even had poems. We just had trees that were black and straight and haunted as fuck.
I’m sorry, I won’t curse again in this story. I promise you, but I had to emphasize that some places have haunted houses, and some have haunted forests. We had those and we had haunted refrigerators and haunted baseball fields and haunted rats. When Halloween came, our haunted houses became even more haunted. The real ghosts and the fake ghosts would party with each other and the fake ghosts mostly didn’t even know it. At least that’s what everybody believed after the fire happened, that a million ghosts were unleashed with the flames.
The fire ate our town. It gave full-thickness burns to our lake. Our church had the blisters and thickening of partial-thickness burns. There was the superficial redness of our Honda. Some schools close for snow days. Ours closed for burn days, for heat days, because broiled chairs and sautéed mailboxes and fried merry-go-rounds make you so haunted that your dreams are charred nightmares and your nightmares are things that should be locked in solitary confinement in prisons so hidden that even the warden has to come back from the dead to exist.
I say all of this so you understand why I ran to the sea.
I wanted the Navy. I needed water—boiled water, bottled water, de-ionized water, filtered water, rainwater, raw water, reverse-osmosis water, snow water; I wanted still water and distilled water, soft water and hard water, tap water and samba water. It didn’t matter as long as I was wet and it was near.
They sent me to Skaggs Island, which is in California, or was, up until Bill Clinton erased it, shutting down bases that were seen as superfluous. Skaggs Island wasn’t an island. And someone told me that ‘skagg’ means ‘whore,’ which even has me more confused. The weakest river known to the U.S surrounded the base. I think somehow the river flowed in a circle, which is impossible, but the military can do anything with enough funding. They started to close the base down when I was there, sending some people home for early-outs, which my mother nearly fainted when I told her. I’m her only boy and her only daughter. She only had me, so growing up she’d sometimes dress me in Batman polo shirts or blue pants with striped button-down ties and other times she’d dress me in matchable sleeveless racer-back tank tops or sleeve-having rainbow shark-bite sundresses. I learned that the world pretended there were two sexes, male and female, but in reality there were seven thousand two hundred and ninety-eight genders. She said more would be created as the fashion industry grows.
My father left us when I was three. I remember being in a crocheted top dress with pleated skirt and a World Wrestling Federation baseball cap when he was hauling luggage to the car. I asked if he was going on vacation and he said, “Yes, for eight thousand years.” I learned that my family exaggerated numbers. My mother, a pantheist, when I asked her if we all die, told me, “Yes, we die about seven million times. It goes on almost forever. But we live too. It’s give-and-take.”
My Chief on Skaggs Island got the idea to send me to Diego Garcia, which is an island that doesn’t have ‘Island’ anywhere in its name. It’s in the Chagos Archipelago. I forget what that means, but I promise you it has nothing do with Cheetos. On the plane ride there, we had stops in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Bahrain, so that by the end there was just seven of us on the plane. It was packed when we started, but at the end I remember the pilot saying, “Welcome to the Island of Misfit Boys.” In the barracks, if you got on the roof, you could see water to the left and water to the right. The island was a horseshoe, so thin at places that during horrible storms it would flood into two islands. It felt like I was living in the atrium of postmodernity, as if there could be nothing more liminal than a place that physically and dramatically changed based simply upon the level of rainfall. And it rained hard there. It rained so hard that I would go outside and stand in it and it would hurt. It was the most natural exfoliation you could imagine. Then we went to war.
Here’s where things finally get strange. We didn’t know much about Saddam Hussein at the time. About the only thing I knew was that my new Chief had a cartoon of a missile being shoved into Saddam’s buttocks. I asked why my Chief would have a cartoon like that when Disney had so many more options that were more peaceful and he said that the Navy isn’t about peace. I asked what it was about and he made me paint the bottom of the stairs outside. That’s a true story. Not the top of the stairs, but the bottom that is never seen, except by insects. He also told me I was a candidate to get shipped dirsup—which means Direct Support—to one of the destroyers in the Gulf and I told him I joined the military for the water and that being on a ship meant I’d be even closer to the ocean than being on an island. By letter, I told my mother all of this, which was a mistake.
Within a week my Chief called me into his office and told me that even though it was Operation Desert Storm, I was being sent home on leave. Apparently, this was a high honor where they were making massive exceptions for me, so, of course, I asked why and he told me to sit down and get comfortable, so I continued to stand there and he said that my mother was getting a divorce. I stood there trying to process it all and I think he took that for shock, but I was just trying to remember if my parents were already divorced and, yes, they were, so I wondered if he meant to say that my mother was getting married, but I also remembered that in the military you should always keep your mouth shut, so he told me I could go home now and that I wouldn’t need a ticket or reservation or anything; I’d just go down to the hanger and they’d put me on the first empty seat back to the states.
Returning to your hometown is a bit like going back inside a bowling alley when you forgot to return the shoes. They’re sort of happy to see you, but they just saw you for what feels like seconds ago and they kinda wish you’d moved on with your life, but you haven’t. I mean, the trees were still in rigor mortis, except now with boney snow added to them, the flakes mostly failing to balance on the anorexic branches. When I got to the trailer park, my mother hugged me with the ferocity of electrocution. The kitchen was all gurgling and smoke and thermodynamics, as if it was Ramadan and Christmas and Lupercalia all in one. I asked about the divorce-marriage and she told me the beef-n-broccoli stir-broil and oven-roasted potatoes would be ready in a bit. She was making s’mores-cake in a bottle and something she called “The Penultimate Greek Salad.” She said we would be eating until we vomited, which was something that I—
But before I could do anything, she told me to sit down on our ‘gruel couch,’ meaning a sofa the color of gruel (thank you, St. Vinny’s) and she said that there is no divorce and she said that she lied to the U.S. government because she wanted me home for near-Christmas, which I was worried was a felony, but she told me that the U.S. doesn’t put old women in jail for wanting to see their children during a war.
Then she told me that they did a study where they found that, before a tsunami, animals would run deeper into the woods. Birds would fly away from the shore; everything in nature would start caving internally until the shoreline was barren of wildlife, and then the tsunami would hit. She said that animals know and that she’s an animal and I’m an animal and we’re all animals except some people like to pretend they’re not animals so they close themselves off from precognition. Heck, she said, nowadays there’s no cognition or recognition or co-cognition or anything; it’s just un-cognition and mis-cognition. I waited for her to be done, the view outside the window of a snowy post-apocalypse, or maybe it was pre-apocalypse or maybe this was the apocalypse itself. I didn’t know. It’s hard to tell when you’re all wrapped up in it. But we just went on with the day like that, with no more mention of lying or the Navy or extrasensory perception. We went walking to a graveyard where she showed me a neighbor who was dead from a fall at the mines and we went by the lake where there were ice fishermen not catching anything and we went back inside and had hot chocolate that made you think God was in your chest and then we fell asleep to the sound of the wind warning us over and over and over again how cold it was outside and howling about how badly it wanted to be with us in the warmth.
The flight back hurt. It took my legs. They say that even when they do aerobic activity, astronauts still have considerable muscle atrophy. I wondered where I was, who I was. I wondered if the military was trying to turn me into nothing, trying to shrink me. The most weak I ever felt in my life was after boot camp. I thought it’d turn me into the Incredible Hulk. I got pneumonia in boot camp and when I graduated I looked like a used old golf club.
On my first shift back, I counted my Chief saying the f- word one hundred twenty-three times. I marked them down each time, but sometimes they came so fast that I missed some. He was on the other side of my cubicle. His disembodied voice said there were “no immediate plans” to send me to the Gulf. Because my mother was struggling with the struggles of struggle-divorce. The horrors of horror-loss. I noticed my Chief was nicer to me, which meant more distant from me, which meant leaving me alone, which meant less yelling. There wasn’t any friendliness or humanity or benevolence, just the grace of aloofness. Until one day he said I was going to counseling. The division officer was demanding it. They’d been keeping an eye on me and I was “hyper-asocial,” which is a term I’m sure they coined just for me. They expected me to have transformed upon return. They wanted me to be a sailor who was ready to defend his country. I told the Chief I was ready before he even asked, that they could send me to the front lines, that I was prepared to be Bruce Willis in Die Hard. I should have kept silent, because this made him think I needed counseling beyond the divorce stuff. Anyone who actually wants to go to war must be insane.
The counselor, I’d come to find, was the Chief’s brother. They do that in the military sometimes, or at least used to, that is, put relatives together on the same base. It supposedly keeps up morale. You feel like you’re at home; nothing makes you more nostalgic quicker than getting into a fistfight with a sibling.
His office walls were decorated with medals and ribbons, not the Medal of Honor or the Navy Cross, but plenty of Overseas Deployment ribbons.
I was sitting.
“Marksmanship,” he said.
I was looking at one of his massively enlarged versions of his ribbons on the wall.
“Pistol,” he said. He put his chest out. I wondered if he could keep inflating, if he would blow up like a balloon and press up against my face for the rest of the counseling session. “So,” he said and waited for me. I think it was a counseling tip he learned in Counseling School, an online course that one can successfully pass in a week with due diligence. Silence draws out the patient.
He got sick of waiting. “You’re parents are getting divorced?”
“Yes,” I said too quickly.
“Talk about it.”
I didn’t know what to say. My father could be anybody. I would be making him up on the spot. There are so many professions—teacher, lawyer, professional cuddler, ethical hacker, acrobatic talent scout, registered nurse, un-registered nurse, pastor, bastard, sheriff’s mistress, accountant. I could keep going for miles. I chose lawyer. It seemed like it would have threat hidden underneath, that maybe he shouldn’t dig too deep or I’d sue. I imagined my father graduating from the best law schools. What were the best law schools? I had no idea. Central Michigan University? Jackson Community College? Calvin Theological Seminary? I only knew Michigan colleges. It made me realize the importance of traveling, just for the ability to lie accurately. I noticed the Chief’s brother studying me. The pained expression on my face from trying to make up a proper university must have displayed as years of familial discontent, plates shattering against taxicab windows, clothing thrown down the stairs of brothels in Wyoming. I don’t know. But it seemed that he was imagining all of the pain that I was supposedly imagining. I thought for a moment of confessing, but realized double jeopardy. In the military, you can be tried both as a civilian and as a serviceman. They can hang you more than once, kill you more than once. And military prisons are known to be even worse than civilian prisons. I kept my mouth shut. I kept my eyes shut. I tried to imagine he wasn’t there.
“You don’t happen to suffer from any . . . things that I should know about?” he asked.
I opened my eyes. “No.”
I realized my sanity was at stake. Navy psych wards are worse than civilian prisons. He was judging me, writing up a report. I decided to be boringly sane. I would make up William Shakespeare quotations if needed. I’d mention the joys of David Letterman reruns. I tried to recall a Detroit Lions statistic, but I couldn’t even remember a player’s name, ever. Donald Haslenn? Was that a person? Tubby McGuire? What was that? A plumber? A friend from back home? Elliott Smith? That seemed real. I could imagine a real person named Elliott Smith. Elliott Smith sounded like a running back. But what do running backs do? Tackles and ball throws? Running and spiking the touchdown? What were the statistics on those? I’d make them up if needed.
“Well,” the Chief’s brother said, “If you ever need to talk, I’m here.” He closed his little book. He had a little book. I wondered if he was reading while my eyes were closed. He opened the door for me to be free.
They sent me to the Philippines for a psych eval. The Chief’s brother was sure I was being torn apart by a parental divorce so hurtful that I couldn’t put it into words.
I didn’t want any more flights. They flew me with another kid who got caught making out with his Bible. Swear to God. Apparently his bunkmate walked in and saw him tonguing Corinthians. Of course, sometimes people lie so that they can have the room to themselves for a few days. You can’t trust anybody in the military. I wanted to ask the kid what it was like to French kiss the names of the apostles. In some ways, it seemed kind of a nice thing to do. I remember watching him walk away from me when we landed. He looked like he was walking straight into a life of standing in rainstorms for buses. I don’t know what happened to that guy, but they had me do Rorschach stuff. They held up a blotch of black paint and asked me what it looks like.
“It looks like a Rorschach test.”
“Yes, but what else does it look like?”
“Just a Rorschach test.”
“Yes, I know, but use your imagination. What else does it look like?”
I used my imagination. I saw devils and said that I saw hearts. I saw dead impaled oxen and said I saw a peace sign. I saw pregnant hippos floating up into gigantic zephyrs and said that I saw a heart inside of a peace sign on top of Abraham Lincoln’s kind beard.
They passed me.
I went back to my command. We were in the heart of it all, the pumping vessels of war. My Chief sent me dirsup with a Marine unit. They needed someone who did the little that I did. I was more of a nuisance, appreciated when I was silent. All I remember is seasickness, the feel that I wanted to defecate and urinate and spit and vomit and sweat all at once. It was like I wanted everything out of my body including myself. We landed on beach and soon walked and rode our way into desert. About all I remember was the constant odor. It was like the smell of headache. There was a wind that wasn’t a wind; it was the continual burning of a distant oil well, of oil that was unwell, of sick oil. The Lieutenant Commander had a mustache like a sand dune. I realized that where you grow up follows you everywhere. The heat ate us. I was divorced from nature, remarried to distance, dating fire. If I ever got back home again, I promised myself to run until my lungs caught flame, to sprint until I got somewhere safe, and that still hasn’t happened yet.