Excerpt 3

December 25, 2004

Christmas in Iraq. This is the first time I have celebrated this holiday away from the States, the first time in 10 years away from Rita or our families.

Today, we had a mandatory formation at 0830. There were some promotions and Top played Santa. He even put on a beard, bushy white eyebrows, and a hat. He handed out gifts the major had put together for each person in the company.

I got a copy of the yearbook project I finally finished—I found that pretty amusing.

To receive our gifts we crowded around the tree that had been set up in the hangar. They put out refreshments, mainly Gatorade and water. It was nice, I have to admit. This little celebration represented the beginning of the end of this epic struggle to remain sane and alive.

Yet I felt so distant from everyone. I felt like a phantom, a stranger, emotionally detached from all the chattering faces.

As I floated through the crowd, I realized that the “good me” still exists but it has been soiled, tainted, or as if that part of me is being held at bay by the rage, the disillusionment, sorrow, regret, and self-loathing. Now, only disappointment and sadness have power over my heart and I am helplessly lost to that inner turmoil.

Life seems to be nothing more than a facsimile of something that once meant so much. I’ve been corrupted by what I’ve experienced and the hope of experiencing beauty again means nothing. A haze of pain and sorrow fogs my eyes, making the world dim and grey. Things that used to move me come through sounding tinny, like from a blown-out stereo system.

Memories of Rita and better days clutch at my throat like a tightening noose. I feel that I have fucked up what was good in my life. Is it an integral part of me to take my blessings for granted? Or even destroy them? Why do I seem to have this self-destructive attitude? I don’t understand anything any more. It’s all so hopeless.

I remember when Rita and I would giggle together at the drama of others. How free and easily everything seemed to come for us. What happened to those years? How did we get so lost?

We were always joined, not needing more. Did we grow apart? Or did we grow up?

I remember tasting the mashed potatoes at Rita’s parents’ house on Christmas Day to make sure they were done. I remember watching her cook, admiring her body, loving her spirit—she never knew. I never let it out like I should have. I kept it tight within me. Why I was so inhibited, I don’t know. Why not let the woman you love know how you feel?

I’m listening to people partying a few hovels down from here. Even as the mortars drop and the killing continues, boisterous voices drift over the air undaunted in their quest for peace. Yet I want no part of it. I shy away from people now despite my loneliness. They scare me because I’m all too aware of the violence residing in each of us. Whether it’s emotional or physical, it’s all too ready or eager to be unchained.

But they party like there’s no tomorrow. Who can blame them? There might not be another tomorrow. They’re furiously attempting to forget where they are and the suffering they have endured here. Let’s drown the beast of sorrow until the bottom of the bottle is in sight, only to wish for more because it’s not enough. It’s never enough. We drown ourselves, still wondering “How come this void is still within me, how come I still feel so empty?” The response being “Ahhh, that’s a buzzkill; fuck it, let’s have another drink.”

God… help me. I feel so many years heaped upon this weary, bony body and my strength is fading like a sunset. Help me out of this sinkhole of depression that has me caught in its swirling grasp.

Why did this happen? Did you do this? Did you lead me here? Are you showing me that I’ve been going down the wrong trail? Did I ignore your warnings? Did you lead me here to die? Should I close my eyes, never to wake again? Should I find the peaceful sleep of forever?

The weight of this year has taken its toll. There is only a whimper, a dying gasp left in my heart and I wish for deliverance from this life. I’m going over the cliff with the engine roaring, gas pedal pinned to the floor.

And I don’t care.

Fighter jets roar overhead. Helicopters beat against the air in the distance. The violence of war continues.

No day is sacred in this land.

I am broken.

Merry Christmas.

December 26, 2004

It rained here today. All the usual sand and dust once again rapidly turned to a sticky goop. Going to the latrine or shower trailer has become a tedious task of revoltingly “shlocking” your way through the mud. Finding just the right path of high ground is a challenge. There’s an abundance of spots in the mud where your feet just sink in and you stop, wondering if you’ve lost a boot or flip-flop, like a beached derelict of a wrecked ship with half of its hull jutting from the mess.

People have put down thin planks of wood, anything they could find lying around, forming a precarious walking path to the showers and latrines. The planks are so slick with mud that you teeter on them like some mad daredevil walking a tightrope between two skyscrapers, arms flapping like a baby bird.

Inside the trailers, tracks of mud cover the floor, spatters of it even on the walls like smears of baby diarrhea. The stalls are clogged with the remnants of soiled toilet paper and someone’s unsettled dinner.

Soap for the three sinks is often scarce, so you end up just rinsing your hands, absently gazing at your lifeless reflection in the grimy mirror and wondering “How did I get here?”

You step into the showers, muddy flip-flops and all, to the remains of the last person’s mud still spotting the stall. You turn the water on and the brown goop pools around your feet and sits there, refusing to be washed down an already clogged drain. It never wants to leave your side. It’s a most loyal mud. And you scrape your flip-flops on the bottom of the stall just as vigorously as you scrub yourself, to cleanse both your body and soul… like some abysmal baptism. But you never really feel clean no matter how hard you try.

On your return to your prison cell, mud cakes the bottom of your flip-flops again no matter how carefully you pick your way across the treacherous wood planking, this time even more carefully because you’re desperate to stay clean. The small pockets of gravel look like the bottom of a fish tank that has been drained. When you step on them, they no longer crunch; instead you feel only the agonizing sinking of the mud underneath, like you’re stepping on an immense pile of freshly laid manure. The wind blows, wiping your brow of accumulated sweat. It ripples off the puddles and bites into you, cold air that is at least 80 degrees; together with the mud, they both strive to make your life even more miserable than it already was.

When you finally make it to your cell, relieved to have made it with only a few smears of mud to track in, a mortar whines overhead. It arcs over your cell only to land near the mess hall some yards away. The explosion shakes your very soul. You wince, shoulders instantly burning with the stress of anticipating death, your eye twitches, your hands shake, scenes from your previous life flash before you.

You see the picture of Rita hanging on the wall. You see your parents crying at your funeral procession. “That was a close one,” you mutter, carefully shaking off your flip-flops on the muddy entrance rug you took from someone else’s garbage pile.

You sigh.

You wonder how long your luck will hold out. When will be the day that a shell drops in on you, not bothering to knock, just rudely crashing through your ceiling and greeting you with vengeful violent glee, your shock only registering for a brief moment before your life is extinguished.

It’s just another day in Iraq.