When it’s my turn, what shall I do?
You shall step into the antiseptic room on your own power, your Buster Brown shoes scuffing the tiles with purpose, as though eager. You shall not look around for things to fear that you don’t want to see, but lift yourself quickly onto the paper protected examining table without a leg-up from Mama, cold as you’re supposed to be, stripping yourself naked. You shall answer questions dutifully with a “Yes” or “No.”
“Are you a good boy?”
“Are you afraid?”
“Did your mother tell you what this will be like?”
“You’ll just feel a little stick, understand?”
You shall turn your head to the wall and study the bulging eyes of the skinless red anatomy man on the wall poster as the needle goes farther than things are supposed to go into you, to a new hurt. That is your soft tissue.
“Easier than you thought, huh, tough guy?”
You shall not cry. The smell of the stinging time will remain. There will be other days in similar places with the arcing drill of new penetrations–diseases, decays, madnesses, certificates of live birth, certificates of death. That smell, and others.
You shall enter a school room where you have longed to be, a storied place of promise where the others have passed before you, but it is not the room you imagined. Didn’t your mother tell you? Not this. It is not what you prepared for. That place was a room of the mind, boundless and changing and light, furnished and peopled by the articulations of older sisters’ experience translated into your dreams: beginnings of great things, of art and play and learning guided by wise, warm hands and chirpy kindergarten camaraderie.
Your mother will leave you. All the children are crying, but you shall not cry. You study their faces: twisted, wet, and stupid; inarticulate, types. You study the walls: faded white and stolid, propping playthings–cardboard blocks and colorful books–in an odd stasis, not quite proffered, yet held before you, promised. They appear the only possibility for pleasure in the room, but now is not the time–too many tragic farewells being wrung from too many clutching fingers. Your first lesson is history in the flecks frozen in resin between the old wood floorboards. You intuit a continuum of clicking little feet and accreted small dramas. Specks.
You hunker down for what will begin. You already know the smell of red and green snot drying on radiators. Injury, slough, into air. Crust.
You shall circle your enemy, Richard D’Arcy, on the asphalt playground as the brown oak leaves whirl in a helix at the corner of the cyclone fence where the older children twirl in a mad hora around your now locked bodies as you clamor on top; they chant “hit him in the face, hit him in the face.” You shall do so till the blood comes out his nose and the tears come out his eyes and the cries for Mommy come out his mouth. You are doing what they told you. You want to make a point, but they want damage. Your fight is about gum, or your clothes; how you played kickball, a girl you like, your lunch, your Mama. I don’t remember what. Your vanity. You find that you are good at hitting faces. You know how to want to win.
His name is pronounced Ree-shard, a spoiled French kid. “You may call heem Ree-cherd eef you must, but nevair call heem Reech, or Reechy.” His mother tells you this with a boney finger in your face. She is a haunted white wisp of a woman with hooded Gallic eyes and frizzled hair like colorless sparks and a limp that grows into a stagger as the evening and the drinking progress. As she chases you–in play–from room to room in their waterfront dream house on the hill, unhurriedly, implacably, you suppress the unpleasant thrill of strangeness, tell yourself it’s because they’re French–the whole place smells foreign, like bath salts and cologne over cloying funk, and they eat chunks of bread and chocolate on TV trays–and “she’s his mother, not a ghost.” Richard is spoiled because he’s adopted because of what the Nazis did to her. His father works for the U.N. Mother and father had been in the Resistance together. She got caught. There were experiments.
Years later you will hear that she died falling down the basement steps in a drunken stupor. You will wonder–absolutely wonder–at her life. Her son was spoiled and threw fits in French at ten years of age in America in 1967. He chewed gum loudly with his mouth open and ran like a retard. Did you call him Ree-shard the retard? His was the first face you kicked the snot out of. They had ripped her open without anaesthetic, and you will wonder what you would do.
Gamblers call it “the action.” It’s not about winning; it’s about laying out your money. The addiction is the game itself–the experience of pure moment, the adrenal rush of expectation–not the outcome, the inevitable letdown, win or lose. It’s the venture of bluffing for stakes greater than you can afford to lose. It’s calling a hand you think you might not beat, committing a rainy day bet to a horse that wasn’t bred by mudders. It’s the dirty buzz of walking into a room with no way out, just to see what happens, just to test your response. Happiness, resolution, and success are peripheral to the gambler. It’s all up for grabs in the next move, anyway. They are the ultimate pagans and fatalists. In the end you always lose, yet you go on hoping; it’s just a matter of how far you go, seeing what the house was holding.
“Bridge jumpers” are gamblers who put all their money on a sure thing that loses, and since sure things don’t exist, bridge jumpers are more earnest suicides of immediate intent. The same is true, of course, for idealists, champions of causes, embracers of a greater abstract Good–they are martyrs to the action, gambling on a monolithic faith, but their bankroll is the common blood and communal death. They take the bridges with them.
Effects are for planners and saviors. Some build bridges, some blow them, and others simply leap.
You have panicked and joined the Navy. A white, middle-class upbringing hasn’t saved you; education hasn’t saved you; love hasn’t saved you from yourself. You now crave and dread experience like this generation’s drug, so you’re hurtling across the Rustbelt and the Heartland in an Amtrak capsule, chain smoking cigarettes and counting the ice-crazed, moonlit fence stiles elapse like history as the train escorts you personally to the future, to the new, to the deep soft tissue of the world. You tell yourself in the mantra of the ghetto kid obsessed with “respect” or the white trash descendent of Scotch-Irish “honor” or the Latino’s professed proximity to his own blood’s folly, that you’re the agent this time, the fear flying out of the shadows, the self-immolating, ambushing sting whose venom awaits the overbearing knuckle of the world.
You have tossed the dice against some windswept corner’s autumnal impassivity and the bones rattled snake eyes in the howling gust that seemed to echo the collective insuck of loved ones’ rueful “Ahs.” The military said, “We’ll make a man,” buffed you like a trophy brass shell, then hurled you at the rubble-making world.
You shall observe. You shall absorb. You shall act decisively, regardless of propriety. Observed: there is no law but you, the line between the id and the ego; between an individual and necessary results. Absorbed: people respect an authority who can perform his own commands. Decided: know your job and act with immediate force upon anyone who challenges your authority, regardless of the odds. You are frontier justice and the cavalry isn’t coming; there is no higher authority, no way “things are supposed to be” except as you determine. There is chaos, and there is order as you would have it. It all breaks down beyond you, and everyone above and everyone below expects you to hold the line. You are a little country that hopes to do right by the world, a little domain as far as your influence can reach.
You shall realize that so it goes with nations, societies. The joke we call countries. you don’t need Nazi Germany or Rwanda or Palestine or the Balkan states to learn it, though perhaps horror in Sense-around makes the point for those who missed it on the neighborhood monkey bars, the little league game, the last election. Who’s in control, here? The ones who assume official power to grant the right to steal, murder, rape, and rob your neighbor, to edit history, to spin the present? Two plus two grows closer to five.
You shall break two men’s faces, one for giving an order and one for refusing. You shall successfully defy your chief when you realize that he can’t beat you physically and can’t pass you up the chain of command while retaining any respect or authority for himself (you learned this personally with the second face, and still bear the scar where he hit you with a wrench before succumbing to your disguised terror). You shall learn the utility in being a problem, in forcing such decisions, such crises, in others.
Sailing into the placid blue waters of Subic Bay toward Olongapo City, protected from the turbulent Pacific by the bunkering shoulders of brown mountains on all sides, opening and rising as if you were laddering up locks towards a more exalted and sea-transcending elevation, you shall soon partake in the debauch of one nation by another under the consent of both governments: where the police are the gang with guns, where girls float in banca boats along the bridge over Shit River and bare their breasts for coins, and the children dive in behind the errant plips of pennies; the bridge over which Americans stream with the dollars that mean today’s difference between life and death, misery and less misery(“I love you Joe, no bullshit!”), to get licked and sucked and fucked and see the whole humiliating show to the end, long after it stopped being about sex: how can they bring themselves to do that? Your American neighbors and you: brother and uncle and husband and dad, the smiling men.
The rules have changed. It’s like being god. You can do anything.
The division party is at your chief’s friend’s bar(the chiefs retire and buy these places, become entrepreneurs, pimps); the sex show is fizzling out–the lesbian act was uninspired and insincere, and the newest member of your club, a suburban, red-headed teenaged signalman with a serious drinking problem, is lying on the floor with his pants around his knees as his “girlfriend” looks on in embarrassment while a performer pulls at his flaccid penis with her mouth like a robin wrestling the early worm. Later, perhaps in the post-party letdown, your chief will say, “C’mon, let’s go to Subic City. It’s down-and-dirtier. They don’t appreciate us here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ain’t no one crawling on their hands and knees begging to suck my cock.”
You will wonder if his wife knows this side of him, if everybody knows this side of themselves, if everybody has this side, if in the other world–the one you knew before–there is a great silence, a great conspiracy. You will learn there is a great confusion between intentions and deeds.
Next time in Olongapo will be during the monsoon, weeks of driving rain and blackouts in ninety-plus weather. The bars will be closed because it’s election day and there must be an external show of propriety as the dictator Marcos once again rides an uncontested popular tide to the head of the table as his party’s once again shuffled down to the bottom of the deck. You’ll be depressed by how sordid and sodden and meaningless the place is, by the vague sensation that you’re somehow involved, complicit, a tool, so you’ll ask a jeepney driver where you can get a joint to pass the time. He’ll take you for an elaborate ride through the labyrinthine backstreets to his house and you’ll try to remember the route in case you have to make a retreat. Once there, instead of producing a measly joint, he’ll call a friend and say he’s got someone who wants to move some drugs; then, with a wink to you: “good friend, he’s got everything you want.” His son will emerge from the back room, hold out his palm and offer to fetch you some beer. Marcos will be giving a speech on the black-and-white portable and the man will jerk an enthusiastic thumb at it. Then his wife will emerge wrapped in a sheet and holding a baby. He will offer his wife to you while you wait. You will return to the navy base on your feet, and not by memory but in a compass line, passing through everything in your way.
Before leaving The Philippines you will be in the arms of your lover in a rickety hotel smelling of burnt mosquito coils and strangers’ bodies and the tropical dust that gathers on rough hewn wood, where it is busy with the noisy traffic of girls and johns on the stairwell, where you signed in as Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Jefferson–playing at being other people, married with a future together for a moment–and she will speak of “Thee village in thee country,” where she came from, and where “You must do what you must do.”
“What must you do?”
“You must help your family. You must go to Olongapo and get a job to help your family.”
It seems that you shall, at long last, arrive at a conscience that operates beyond the borders of your narrow self, as you have explored by now the world within and without you, before and beyond you; you have seen how small you are. The most niggardly and defeated bet is on the self. There is so little action there. It’s likely that you shall make the great connection, learn the lesson, pick up the string of clues that bring you home again to everything and everyone. Maybe some of those fatalists know that there’s ultimately nothing to lose if you’ve been paying-in, feeding history, nudging the continuum into the light like something valuable, like a strange but familiar face emerging from wreckage.
When your servitude elapses and you step into your free will and uncertainty and the darkness of the new, real, experience, your shipmates will moan their misfortune and bide their time till it’s their turn. And when their time comes they will all–all–to a man, opt for reenlistment and continuing a life in the room they hate but that they know inside-out, at last clutching desperately, hopelessly, to the familiar. That is fear. You will realize that is how many people live. Out of fear, in a life they hate.
Sick at heart, resentful, but still darkly curious and hungry as children knitting bones, they turn to shriveled narcissists seeking satisfaction in the pornography of mirrors, the angry lash, the cult of status–their totem the dodo, the passenger pigeon; or they are merely morbid pockets of selfish want, cavitations on the surface of history’s track, obstacles to be hurdled and ultimately forgotten. Having never leapt forward they have diminished the past and condemned themselves to exile from the human community of significant memory.
And now it is the stinging time again, the new hurt, the bitter smell. It is your turn again. It has always been your turn.