Love and the Jihad
I decide to tell them. Just so they’ll leave me alone.
“Never thought I’d get turned on by anything Middle Eastern. But yeah, one seduced me.
“So here’s the deal. My boys and me just took a propaganda tour to show off a new Afghani police unit. We’re on the way back to FOB. It’s weird being out on the streets with them. My thinking is, if we’re not on their side, that makes us the enemies of their peace. Bad guys, like the fucking bomb jockeys. That’s what nobody seems to understand, and I damn sure didn’t. Let’s just set aside for the moment that these people’s ideas of peace, okay, it’s not that different from ours. We’re supposed to be better than the terrorists. The Commandos: we train 'em, we trot 'em out. They’re our little West Highland Terriers of death, singing, ‘Ala-la-la-la It’s a paramilitary life for me.’ Know what I’m saying? It’s the same thing Al-Qaeda does, and Mujahideen, without all the suicide tactics and religious zeal.”
“Just stick to the story.”
“Shut the fuck up. So anyway, it gets kinda lonely being up in here, you know. A guy can wax pretty reflective, see? Now where was I?
“On the road to Kandahar we stop off at this brothel. Nothing really happens; just show our faces. Not a brothel, that’s like a whorehouse. A harem, all right? The Muslim equivalent of a strip club, with none of the bare titties. We stop to show off the new Afghan boys in black, and they make us make ourselves comfortable. I don’t know why they want all their chicks over there all covered up like plague victims, but this place is downright liberal, okay? Not my business. I’m just there doing my job like I can. The girls are wearing veils, like multicolored and see-through ones. There’s something hot about the chicks in this harem, because I can see them, and like, I’ve been looking at Army chicks for four years. Dog-faced soldiers, hear me? Can’t touch or fuck none of these dancers in there, but something happens with one of the girls. We’re leaving, and she tucks a rolled-up US dollar under my helmet. It says something in Arabic. I ask one of the Commandos to tell me what it says.”
“‘Read it yourself, asshole.’ he says, ‘You can’t read English?’”
“Check it: homegirl’s handwriting, her cursive, looked just like Arabic to me, all backwards and nonsensical-like. Sure enough, good ole-fashioned American English. Won’t ever forget what it said. It was beautiful. The like, font, or whatever.
“Said, ‘You have the will of a dying soldier.’
“All the way back to FOB Ramrod I play that over in my brain. The will of a dying soldier. And a pyramid in a desert with a eye and Latin and stuff. Like, seriously existential shit. So what can I do?”
“What was the girl’s name?”
“So I did something stupid as fuck that night. Slipped off the FOB with a truck full of Afghan civilian contractors on their way home. And I did it in my favorite clothes from high school: plaid button up, a white tee with my faded-est jeans, pair of high-top Chucks. Left my M-16 and my uniform in an empty water barrel.”
“You left the FOB in civilian clothing, completely unarmed?”
“That’s what I just said. What, is there an echo in here? Shut the fuck up. It ain’t hard. Okay? Jesus.
“So I got ‘em to drop me at the harem. Closed down for the night. She’s in back cleaning burnt molasses out of the hookahs in just her top and a skirt. She’s facing away from me, like.…
“‘I have the will of a dying soldier?’ I say to her.
“She lifts her head. Doesn’t turn around. Sounds like a spirit, or something, when she talks. ‘Should you not be on your command post?’
“‘The will of a dying soldier?’ I say it again.
“And she just says ‘Yes.’”
“So I’m like, ‘What the fuck does that even mean?’
“She turned around. Her eyes were all green and yellow. Looked like a couple big lily pads. Had lips like strawberry Starburst.
“‘It means,’ she said, ‘you are a man who wants to go home. Not like those he rides in trucks with. The ones he kills with.’
“‘So, what, I’m a pussy?’ I say. Stupid.
“She smiles, you know? Goddamn beautiful. Wipes her hands, comes closer. Not like sexual, but you know.…
“‘Why are you here, Private?’ she says.
“‘Cause command is retarded,’ I tell her, ‘and we can all pretty much do whatever we want. It was easy as shit sneaking out.’
“‘Yes, that is quite a problem. But I mean to say, why are you in my country, and not your country?’
“‘Lady,’ I say, ‘I’ve been asking myself that same damn thing four years straight.’
“She takes my hand. Her hands are soft. Mine aren’t. I didn’t know Muslim chicks could bang dudes, but I reckon this chick did her own thing her own way, you know. Free spirit and whatnot. Goddamn, she rocked my gypsy soul, right into the mystic, bro. Know what I mean? Broke more than one hookah rolling ‘round the place. It was wild, but it was sweet too. I bruised my pelvis, but I cried, man. She held me. We both came … and I just fucking cried.”
I sit there and stare into the dark walls, swallowing the lump in my throat. I shouldn’t have told them that.
“Just tell us what happened.”
“That fucking happened, bro. All right? Let me tell my fucking story. Or I can go right back to shutting the fuck up.”
I wait for the asshole across the table to shut his gob. He does. So I tell them the rest.
“So I sneak out a lot after that, go see her. Command? Didn’t have a clue! One day I go to her, and she just stares out at the fields. Her folks had a little farm. Couldn’t grow much, shitty mountain rocks and all. Kept some goats. Her little brother tended them.”
“Yes, and the so-called ‘Kill Team’ got him.”
“Kill team? Don’t do that. Don’t fucking do that, all right man? ‘Got him?’ You make them sound like some fucking … thing! Some irregularity in your flawless plan. You arrogant piece of shit. All right? What the hell do you know? Who the fuck are you, man? My story, or—”
I stop talking. The room gets fat on silence ‘til the shadow in the corner says, “Let him finish.”
“Thank you. Shut the fuck up! So, anyway. Few weeks later. I go to her house. She’s just staring out into the field. Doesn’t say a thing. Won’t even look at me. I walk out there, and her father is standing in the field. Fila’s little brother, Farad, he’s … Farad’s … They blew his legs off with a ‘nade. Eleven years old. Shot him three times in the fucking face. Planted a grenade with him, told command he was threatening them.”
“So I told her. I went in that fucking house, I said, ‘Fila, I’ll find them. I’ll rip their—’ blah blah blah. Yadda yadda yadda. You get the picture.
“Can I have a cigarette?”
They give me one. I smoke it. Tap my fingers slowly on the metal table. Sleeping very little lately.
“Few weeks later I catch the whole group of them. Hanging out in a supply closet. One of them had Farad’s finger in a Ziploc bag. Cut it off with medical shears. Showing it off to his kill team. They’re all trading stories. Mother crossing a bridge, caps her in the leg and watches her fall in the water. They fish her out and stick a Kalashnikov on her little boy, say she charged at him. Took one of her teeth. A cleric up in the north, ‘naded him and ripped his face off. Kept a rib bone. Had pictures fucking tea-bagging his corpse. Laughing it off. Passing around war trophies—I mean body parts—they collected murdering women, children, old people. Normal folk. Farmers and fucking bookkeepers, man.”
“And this is when you—”
“So I threw a grenade in the room. Locked the door.”
The uniform across the table looks to the shadow in the corner, then back at me. Writes something on his pad.
“And I handled it. I’m a man of my word. Old man raised me to be a guy who gets shit done. And those pieces of shit? Mission fucking accomplished. Somebody switches side in the middle of a war, you ask 'em nicely to come back or you put one in their head? Fucking trial of my peers? Crock of shit.”
I smoke my cigarette and tap the ashes over the surface of the table. “What the fuck would you do?”
Just quiet for a minute. The shadow in the corner clears his throat.
“So I sit there and wait. MPs are there a minute later, break some of my ribs and teeth. Black my eye. Take me into custody. On my way out I’m driving down that same road, only the harem’s not there. It’s gone.”
I taste burning filter and crush the smoke out, watching the flames rising from the harem, my blank eyes breaking even across the room, at the good part of me, dying with Farad and Fila.
“So unless you got anything else you gotta know, just write what you gotta write, call who you call, and get on with whatever you gotta get on with.”
The shadow in the corner makes the uniform leave. He doesn’t say anything for a long while. He steps into the halo of sickly fluorescence beaming down from above and says, “If it were up to me. . .”
He looks at me for a long moment then places a pack of Lucky Strikes on the table in front of me with a book of matches. Then he leaves, and I am alone.