by Melanie Conroy-Goldman
I met my friend J on the island of Santorini during his two weeks’ leave from Afghanistan. That we were friends is both true, and elides the complexity of real relationships. We had been high school sweethearts, and broken each others’ hearts more than once, but enough time had passed that calling us friends is accurate. Still, I had carefully thought through the problem of twin beds, of the fact that we would be separated in our shared room.
We had a balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea. From our vantage, we could see the exact domed church, the precise angle of white cross that appeared on all of the postcards. I looked at them, and not at J who was desert tanned and still stank of transport plane. He was diminished, is what I can say. There seemed less of him. Leave, he said, clinking the gray ice cubes in his glass, is weirdness time. You can’t afford to come back, not really, when you know you’ve still got six months on your tour. Which I got, on my own. Which is why I’d come across and ocean and the better part of a continent, instead of having him in my bed at home. Which, also, I did not get, could not ever get.
In his letters, like I was his mom or something, he was always reminding me how safe he was, how it wasn’t like he was in combat, but the fact is I saw how much this bothered him. There was the hierarchy: in-country and out-. They gave you an actual patch or badge when you’d seen fire, and J didn’t have it. There were professional things about advancement, but more just how guys looked at you, at the empty spot on your breastbone or whatever. He kept requesting transfers to places more isolated. Camp V—G— was his third. Before meeting me, he’d gotten the disposable camera snaps processed at a shop in Athens, and now he showed me some ugly-ass landscape and a bunch of tents. For real. The FOB took incoming three to four times a week. When the sirens sounded, the soldiers crouched in these drainpipe things, not high enough to stand and open at both ends. In the picture, J is wearing sunglasses, his mouth a flatline. He wasn’t fucking safe.
J was a mental health specialist. When you were the one standing next to the guy who was vaporized, you got sent to J. Like triage sometimes, right away, like losing your friend was a bleeding wound you could stanch if you got to it fast enough. Functionally, J wasn’t a counselor. You were an asset, and his job was to get the assets back in the field, so he kicked you up to the shrink. Here was a guy, the shrink, who did nothing all day but sit in his office and sign his name on a prescription pad. The big thing they treated the soldiers for was insomnia, giving meds for getting to sleep, because when rockets rain on your tent, and when your friends die, it is difficult to sleep, and when you don’t sleep, you can’t fight.
And so here we were on our balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea, the wrong kind of tired, and it was hard to have it feel like vacation. Let’s go clubbing, I said. J was paying for everything which sucked, but that was a deal we’d made, and I was too broke to change it. Still, when I ordered up more wine, I felt like I was using him. When we managed the beds, at night, I felt like I was using him then, too. But also, like I was doing a favor and all of that made it hard to feel sexy. I’ll admit I wasn’t sexy, not sexy like a soldier deserves. Everything seemed to be trying to trick us. All of the postcard photos seemed to have been taken from our exact balcony. I couldn’t tell about myself, if I was doing good or doing damage.
But how are you, I asked J. How are you? He said, everyone else has seen worse. He said, I don’t have much of a story. But he could tell me stories about other people. Here was something interesting. The military had been issuing these enlistment waivers for people with criminal records or mental illness because the recruitment numbers were so bad. J had been seeing one of these guys, one of these waiver guys, who believed he was a vampire hunter. Which is a problem, the soldier explained to J, because by coincidence, a couple of guys in his unit were vampires. J’s doing intake: Do you feel it’s necessary to hunt these American vampires? Is killing American vampires part of your obligation as a hunter? He’s like, Naw, it’s not like that. The soldier is in-country to fight Taliban vampires. He’s got a truce with the Americans, though obviously it would dissolve on his return to the States. He was a good shot, the vampire hunter, and the mental health apparatus returned him to the field.
The club was terrible, loud techno and bright, sickening drinks, and nobody there except us and the bouncers. The place was elaborate, fountains and multiple floors, and olive trees growing indoors. Let’s just dance anyway, I said. I have to go, he told me. I have to—you get trained to be wary, to watch people, for sudden movements, for lifting the blanket off the bundle to reveal an explosive, for taking cover at a sudden sound—I have to go.
Later, back on the balcony, he told me about the other day. He’d happened to be there when a patrol returned from an encounter with an IED. He’d helped unload the body. But there was not much of it, he said, four men carrying one half of a body. He was never going to forget that feeling, of something light that should have been heavy.
J’s mom is a mystic, tarot cards and Celtic rituals, and she told him about a certain kind of shaman whose job was to absorb other people’s dreams, to bear their suffering for them. He was like that, he told me. Close to the fire, you felt yourself burning.
Melanie Conroy-Goldman is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she was also the founding director of the Trias Residency, which has now hosted such notables at Mary Gaitskill, Mary Ruefle and Chris Abani in year-long residencies. Her own work has been published in Southern Review, Story Quarterly, Laurel Review, in anthologies from Morrow and St. Martin’s and elsewhere.