We Are Here!
Today, we were attacked by a beast.
It was dusk, and I was returning to camp when I heard a rustling sound behind me, like someone trampling on leaves but louder. When I turned, I saw two whips snapping from the edge of the jungle. Antennas. Then two beady eyes big as eight balls. And then the beast itself. All brown all over and big, with about ten hairy legs and this shell thing on its back. It started crawling straight for me, its antennas snapping like it hadn't eaten in days.
I know we're supposed to be prepared for anything, that John says all of America is counting on us, but I swear I froze, I just stood there. The next thing I know, John was shouting something behind me and charging fast at the beast, his M-16 raised to fire. He pulled the trigger twice, but the beast didn't even flinch. Finally, John used the M-16 to jab the beast in its back and its shell made a big, crackling sound, and the beast began to haul ass out of there. You'd think that'd be enough for John, but John had to chase after it, the whole while shouting his war cry, "I kicked butt! I kicked butt!"
Eventually, John settled down and came trotting towards me, a big grin on his face. "Cockroach," I said.
John looked at me like I was speaking Greek. "What'd you say?"
"I said 'cockroach.'"
"Cock roach?" John tried on the word, but it sounded all different the way he said it. Really different. I found myself staring at the scar on John's face, and I shoved my hand in the pocket of my fatigues. It was like I was trying to cover something when there wasn't nothing there to cover.
"You seen one of them before?" John asked.
I shook my head.
"So why did you . . . ?" He didn't finish the question. He didn't need to. Why did I call it a cockroach? How should I know? Maybe I've seen one before, before the war. Maybe I've seen one and just don't remember. Not that I was gonna tell John any of this. Just like I have no intention of telling him I can't remember other things either. Like the name of the war. Or how long we've been fighting. Or why.
Finally, John said this was it. "This is it," he said. "First we have just two weeks' rations left, and now we're getting attacked by that, that whatchamacallit -- "
"Cockroach," I said, my voice so low I barely heard it.
" -- I say no more of this bullshit. It's time for some good old American ass kicking. None of this waiting, starving shit. It's time to kick some enemy butt!"
I pictured John tracking through the jungle, his M-16 poised to fire. I would've pictured the enemy too, except how could I when I couldn't remember ever seeing them? Just then, John flexed his biceps to show how ready he was for battle. I shoved my hand deeper into my pocket.
All this was two hours ago. Since then, I've been in my tent, first getting ready for bed, now writing this journal entry. As I write this, I can still hear John outside, whistling the "Star & Stripes Forever." In the pauses, I hear the clatter of things, and I know he's serious. He intends to find the enemy.
Me, I'm still wondering if the beast will return. And why I've spent so much time recently staring at the scar that runs from John's lip to his chin.
Dear Uncle Sam,
You'll be proud to hear that today, at exactly 0700 hrs., I began Operation Search and Destroy, a tactical maneuver designed to ferret out and eradicate the enemy. Although right now, the platoon is just me and G.I. Jim, the black soldier I told you about, we are well trained and hope to find the enemy soon.
Three other things to report, Sir. One, we were attacked by a wild jungle animal last week, but I used my M-16 and Kung Fu Grip to chase it away. Two, G.I. Jim is beginning to make up words for things. It's possible he's suffering stress from being at WAR for so long. Three, I checked the supplies today and we have exactly two weeks' rations left. I know it's a big WAR and we're just two soldiers, but could you arrange to have a chopper fly in with some more rations and supplies.
P.S. I know I have asked you this before, and I know you are busy supervising this whole WAR, but if you could pass a message on to the Nurse who took care of me that time I was laid up. I didn't get a chance to get her name, but she has blonde hair and her nurse's uniform has a tag that reads NURSE # 6. She always smiled something extra for me and lingered extra long when she felt my forehead each morning. I didn't get a chance to get her name. If you could tell her I'm fighting for her, Sir, and ask her to write to me, I'd appreciate it.
Since my last journal entry, a few things have happened. A compass miraculously appeared. Then some sunshades. The next day, a big PRC-77 scrambler radio. And then, believe it or not, a jeep. Each morning when I woke up, some new Government issue was outside John's tent. John takes these things for granted, as if we've had them all along. I'm the one who's not so sure. A compass, maybe. But a jeep?
Three days ago, precisely one week after we were attacked by the beast, John began his search for the enemy. He's even made up a name for it: Operation Search and Destroy. Everyday, early in the morning, he heads out alone to track through the jungle. He's started drawing a map too, though I don't know how he distinguishes things. To me, the jungle seems all the same -- nothing but tufts of blue and green rope-grass that stretch on indefinitely, each strand as tall as my knee. Maybe John sees distinctions I don't. Slowly, his map -- still mostly blank -- is being filled with scribblings at least.
Something else has happened since my last entry. I still don't know how to describe it.
Up to now, my relationship with John has been like this. During the day, we joke around and do army stuff, and every now and again he comes into my tent. He always comes at night when it is too dark for me to see him or for him to see me. He crawls into my cot and I breathe hard like I'm asleep, like this is all a dream and I don't feel the warmth of his breath or the warmth of his body on top of mine. He rubs on top of me and when he whispers the word "Nurse," that's when I know it'll be over soon. "Nurse," he whispers. "Nurse." I don't say anything. Ever. I don't touch him either. I just breathe hard like I'm still asleep.
Afterwards, he leaves without saying a thing, and it's like he wasn't ever here, except I can still smell him on my body. In the daytime, we act like nothing's happened, like John never calls me Nurse, like I'm just his army buddy Jim. If ever I try to change that, I know it'd just ruin everything. If I ever switch on my flashlight, or call out his name, or touch where his scar is, or do anything to suggest it's me he's lying on top of, and not Nurse, it'd just ruin it all.
The thing is, until today, I was content being Nurse at night. Now, I want to be Jim.
Dear Uncle Sam,
My apologies for my delay in writing, Sir. I was hoping to have something of value to report . Unfortunately, though, after a week of searching, I still haven't located the enemy. They are well trained in avoiding detection, Sir, but the U.S. Army has trained me well, too, and I will not disappoint you.
One more thing, Sir. The supplies. I checked the supplies this morning, and it appears that me and G.I. Jim -- he's the black soldier I told you about -- it looks like we have just two weeks' rations left. If you could place a call, Sir, or somehow look into this, it would be greatly appreciated.
P.S. G.I. Jim is still acting a little strange, and occasionally I catch him staring at me for no apparent reason. I will immediately report to you if I see any further signs of mental deterioration.
P.P.S. I still haven't received a letter from the nurse I told you about, Sir. If you could ask her again. Many thanks.
Today, bright and early, I asked John if I could tag along on his search. Anything to spend more time with him. He responded that one of us had to stay and watch the encampment, at least until he found the enemy. So much for that. Then he said he was hoping to find a river soon, or a stream. Someplace where we could get "those things that swim," since we have only two weeks' rations left.
"Fish, you mean?"
"What?" John asked.
John just looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am. Certainly I'm the only one who's noticed that we always have just two weeks' worth of food left. And that we've combed the jungle a hundred times and a river isn't suddenly going to appear. But then, if a jeep can appear from nowhere, why not a river with fish, and fishing rods for that matter?
After John left to search for the enemy, I went through his things.
I started with his cot, looking under the thin mattress, then under the frame. I went through his duffel bag, then his kit-bag and poncho. I even rifled through his Soldier of Fortune magazines and pin-up calendars. I don't know what I was looking for. Maybe a picture of Nurse. I found nothing.
I returned to my tent, where I've been ever since. What I need is a plan to get John to fall for me. I'm thinking now.
Dear Uncle Sam,
News to report, Sir. I have detected the enemy, which is closer than I thought. Yesterday, I found a patch of grass where the blades had been braided together to make a sign. Like letters on a football field. The braids read: WE ARE HERE! It's as if the enemy is mocking us, Sir. Tomorrow, me and G.I. Jim will begin manning the trench. Hopefully, the enemy will not be too cowardly to show its face.
More bad news, Sir. I inventoried our supplies this morning and noticed that our rations are nearing depletion. Our rations will last another two weeks at most. I know you have the whole of the U.S. armed forces to manage, Sir, but if you could have someone direct a chopper this way with rations, it'd put me and G.I. Jim a lot more at ease. Also, since I've detected the enemy, if there are any reinforcements to spare, or intelligence about the enemy, we'd appreciate it.
This morning when I stepped out of my tent, I found John sitting on a log, smearing his face with mud.
"War?" I asked casually. John grunted a yes and I had to look away so he couldn't see me smiling. When I turned back, the white of his face was completely covered in mud, except for his teeth and eyes. "Here," he said, scooping up a palmful of dirt and holding it out to me. I was in a good mood. I pointed out that I didn't need any mud, that my skin was naturally brown. I even joked that with the mud on his face, he and I could pass for brothers. "Yo, my brother!" I joked.
An hour later the two of us were crouching in a trench we must have dug a long time ago. We had our canteens, John's binoculars, our M-16s, our Bowie knives, and my rucksack full of hand grenades. "So," I began once we were settled, eager to execute step two of my plan, step one of which was: spend long stretches of time with John, say, like in a trench. I cleared my throat. "I've been thinking, John."
John raised a finger to his lips and whispered, "This got anything to do with strategy?"
I shook my head.
"Then it has to wait." John said this so seriously that I remained quiet. I studied the scar that runs from his lips to his chin. I shoved my hand deep in the pocket of my fatigues.
An hour later, we were still crouched in the trench, and I realized John would never allow me to talk here. Finally, when it was dark, John said it was safe to return to camp, the enemy wouldn't attack at night, and the two of us gathered our things and hoisted ourselves out of the trench. My calf and hind muscles were sore from crouching for so many hours, and walking back to camp was both a relief and torture at the same time. When we reached my tent, I asked John if he wanted to stop in, but his response was to ask what for. You know the rules -- this was the subtext -- don't go soft on me. I dug the toe of my combat boots in the dirt but John didn't even notice, he was already moving on, heading towards his tent where he'd probably write one of his USO letters on his USO stationery. Am I the only one who can't remember there ever being a mail pick-up or delivery? I watched John's back as he walked away from me. Then, as he was opening the flap of his tent, because I didn't know what else to say, I said, "See you later, alligator."
John paused. "What's that?"
"I said, 'See you later, alligator.'"
John looked at me with his army green eyes. "What's an alligator?"
I was too tired to explain. "It's another word for goodnight," I lied. I waved and John pushed open the flap of his tent and disappeared inside. I retired to my own tent. Since then, I've been writing this journal entry. Afterwards, I will rub between my legs and think of John.
Dear Uncle Sam,
Five days since my last report, Sir, and we are still waiting for the enemy. Since we haven't received any intelligence, I am reluctant to estimate how many soldiers the enemy has, or what's going to happen to us. No matter what, though, me and G.I. Jim will fight the good fight, and if we are killed or captured as P.O.W.s, we will do so fighting. I will try to keep you posted, Sir, though the dictates of battle may make this my last report. If that proves the case, please let our families know that we fought for America and love them. Also, if you could let the Nurse I told you about know. She still hasn't written to me, and since I don't have her name I can't write to her, but if you could let her know.
Thanks in advance,
Two nights ago, after spending days in the trench with John and getting no where, I decided that my plan to spend long stretches of time with John to talk about us was a mistake. I decided to hell with manning the trench. I wasn't going back.
This was two nights ago I decided all this. I even announced my decision to John. The next morning, though, bright and early, I joined John in the trench. Same thing this morning. So much for my resolution.
John greets me the same way each morning. "I thought you weren't coming back to this hell hole." A big grin on his face, white white teeth behind his camouflage of mud.
"Whatever," I say.
He just smiles wider.
Sometimes I think there's someone out there who's already determined that I should hide in the trench all day, and that jeeps should miraculously appear, and that we should always have just two week's worth of grub left. I don't know. What I do know is this:
Tonight, when it was very dark, John came into my tent and crawled into my cot, avoiding the light like he was on some kind of secret mission. He rubbed himself on top of me and whispered "Nurse" and soon it was all over. Afterwards, without saying a thing, he went back to his tent. Moments later, though his tent is some distance away, I could hear him snoring like a bear. Content with the way things are. And that's when it hit me. The futility of it all.
What I do know is that I'm still awake. Writing a journal entry no one will ever read. Writing again about John, but knowing now that I'll never touch the scar on John's face, John will never whisper my name when he's on top of me. I know that now. I've resigned myself to this finally. Tomorrow, I will tell John that I'm the one who braided the rope grass into a message. There is no enemy.
Dear Uncle Sam,
Seven days, and me and G.I. Jim are still manning the trench, still waiting for the enemy. There is nothing to do in the trench all day, and even G.I. Jim, the black soldier I told you about, is beginning to tire of waiting. To make matters worse, I learned this morning that we have just two weeks' rations left.
I pass the time in the trench thinking of America, and of Nurse. Of her white nurse's uniform and of the way she lingered a few extra seconds when I was laid up and she felt my forehead with the back of her hand each morning. At the time, I imagined the other soldiers awfully jealous, though now I realize they had other concerns, the one with half his face decked up with shrapnel and the second soldier delirious from malaria and the third, I still remember Nurse crossing herself and pulling the sheet over his face and he never said a word. I pass the time thinking of the roundness of Nurse's ankles. And of all the things I never said to her and how I don't even know her name, though one morning I told her mine and she smiled but said nothing. The next morning there was another nurse there, who wouldn't shut up and wasn't pretty at all, and Nurse, my nurse, was gone. I'm rambling, Sir, I'm tired and I'm rambling, and I know my feelings for Nurse are irrelevant to this report. But they are there, Sir, my feelings. She will never write to me, Sir, will she? Even though I told her my name, she'll never write. And all my efforts to find the enemy and die at WAR and make her proud and regretful are for nothing, since for her I'm not even alive. Isn't that true, Sir? Isn't it?
I'm rambling, Sir. My personal affairs are irrelevant to the WAR. Nothing further to report, Sir.
Day Eight. In the morning, bright and early, I trekked out to the trenches to tell John the truth about the sign I made from the rope grass. But something in the way he sat there all serious, staring out of his binoculars, his face perfectly immobile, perfectly determined to spot the enemy before the enemy spotted him, something in all this kept me from saying anything. I crawled into the trench beside him, and he smiled and whispered, "I thought you weren't coming back to this hell hole."
I had come back to tell him there is no enemy. Instead, I said nothing.
Several hours later, when John said, "Shit Goddamn!" and clutched his M-16, at first I thought it was the beast. What else was there? But in the split second it took me to follow John's gaze I saw them. And where before there was no enemy, now the enemy was here. I would have felt surprise but suddenly nothing seemed surprising. I mean, if a jeep and sunshades and a scrambler radio can suddenly appear, why not an enemy?
There were about thirty of them in all, a few more descending from plastic parachutes. But funny looking though. I mean, they were about half our size, and were all green. I don't mean just their uniforms. I mean everything. Their combat boots, their bodies, even their rifles. That's not all, either. It was like their commanding officer had already sealed their fate by giving them a handicap -- each soldier's feet had been glued to a green, plastic thing, like a skateboard without wheels.
With the little plastic things on their feet, and the others being dragged by their plastic parachutes, they didn't have much of a chance. Especially with John acting all Rambo and shooting wildly. Somehow, somewhere, he had gotten a bandanna and tied it around his head, and somehow, his M-16 had turned into an M-60. John fired and there was a rat-a-tat-tat-tat everywhere and it was already dusk so the sky looked like it was lit by a strobe light and the green men were falling everywhere.
I shot a few with my rifle. I even used my Bowie knife to stab one in the face when he tried to sneak up behind us. But mostly John killed them all. All of them.
Afterward, John grunted and started doing some kind of victory dance, and it was like that night he chased the cockroach all over again. He shouted, "I kicked butt! I kicked butt! I kicked butt!" He kept shouting this for about an hour, the whole time running in bigger circles around our camp, his shouts becoming fainter the further away he ran. It was like he was reclaiming territory. If he had paused to piss at carefully chosen points along the outer circumference, I wouldn't have been surprised.
I'm the one who stayed behind and inspected the bodies. I was curious to see if they were really all green. They were. That's not all. I saw that up close, except for the fact that they had green skin and were half our size, they looked a lot like white boys from back home. There was something else too. Underneath each of their plastic feet holders was a little inscription: MADE IN AMERICA.
So we had killed our own. I didn't wait around to tell John this. I went back to my tent. I expected to shed some tears there. I didn't, though I suspect I will tomorrow. For now, I am just stunned.
I slept. I don't remember falling asleep, but I remember waking. I woke to the sound of John's footsteps, different this time, almost stumbling. Out of habit, out of lust, I breathed like I was still sleeping, and when he climbed into my cot and lay on top of me, I continued to breathe like I was asleep. Like this was all a dream.
The two of us are as smooth and flat between our legs as a plank of varnished wood. Maybe this is why it feels so great.
Maybe this is what makes the war almost bearable. Almost.
"Nurse," John whispered, and I knew it would all be over soon. "Nurse."
What? Did his voice change on me? "Nurse," he said. And I was sure. It was like something had been knocked loose. His voice was different. Then he said it, my name, and I was sure. "Jim," he said, and time seemed to stand still. "Jim."
Who knows? Tomorrow, it may be like none of this happened. Tomorrow, maybe John and I will go back to being idiot men at war, fighting an enemy we don't know in a war we can't remember the name of. Or maybe, John will kick himself for letting his guard down, for saying my name, for disturbing the fiction of Nurse, he'll never come to my tent again. Or maybe tomorrow, maybe after this, there'll be a new understanding between us. Right now, it's too soon to tell.
For now, John lies on top of me trembling, and even though he's done, he doesn't leave. And because he doesn't leave, I dare to touch his face, and he lets me. With my fingertips, I trace the scar that runs from his chin to his lips. Then I feel something else. I feel the tears he's crying for the green men we killed. My hand is rough and hard, my hands have been this way for as long as I can remember. There can be no mistake -- they are not Nurse's hands. But John doesn't brush my hand away. Before tomorrow, before daylight, before our grief for the green men engulfs us completely, tonight is tonight. Tonight, John is John, and I am Jim.
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