Andrew lay on his cot and watched military men and women sprint, pushing themselves to beat each other, their legs straining, chests heaving. Afterward, their faces blotched and sweaty, they smiled and panted their way back to their tents where a cheer would go up to be heard round the field.
He fantasized sneaking off to that patch of untended jungle near the track where he could make his way up into the Boonies (as the kids on base called it), where lost coral caves and smashed tombs hid poisonous habu and man-sized webs of banana spiders. He’d pick his way through the dark field of BRON bottles, the codeine laced Japanese cough medicine the older kids guzzled to get a sleepy high. Propped up on a coral mound, surrounded by vines and clicks and whorls, Andrew could find his space to imagine, to make believe. It was impossible to envision his dad in the desert with all that green and humid density below.
Instead, he was stuck here at the track, in the middle of the race with the rest of the kids waiting their turn, with all the branches — Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force — clustered nearby. The race attracted everyone from the surrounding bases, camps and posts on the island, each team to run continuously for 24 hours. Andrew was fourth in rotation in his team of 10. They’d started their laps at 8 a.m. and it wouldn’t be over for millennia. Firstaid tents anchored the patch of green at the center of the track with red crosses. Radios squalled directions to the crowd. Green army tents were pitched around the circumference with smaller bluedomed and twomanners at their edge. A patchwork of canvas and flesh: Cots and sleeping bags, portapotties and mobile food trucks. Men and women milled around in brightly colored tanks and airy, red shorts. Okinawa required it, the heat more a command than a suggestion, and all assembled were comfortable with commands.
A nearby group consisted of only a two-man team instead of the maximum 10. Big and bulky, the men wore little, looked like nude twins in khaki issued shorts. Andrew lacedup, stretched and watched the men as they sprinted in combat boots.
“Jarheads,” Brad leaned over into Andrew’s ear and whispered. Startled, he turned and caught Brad’s smirk.
Andrew’s Dad was enlisted Air Force, Brad’s an officer. The boys would always be distant to each other because of the difference in rank, but each was raised to look down on Marines — their common ground. Grunts, Andrew’s dad called them.
“Just meat shields for the front line,” Brad said. “Look at ‘em all cocky and shit.”
When Brad and Andrew’s dads were sent to Desert Storm they tried to joke about it. The principal had announced in second period, “President Bush has declared war with Iraq,” and he’d stiffened, Angel had sobbed — everyone worried their mother, their father would be sent. The cafeteria was transformed into another tent city offering triage counseling for kids to cope. Brad’s Dad was a pilot, Andrew’s a plumber, but they both baked out in the desert together, became a number waiting their time until they could return. “Send the shitty Marines,” Andrew had said in despair in the makeshift shrink shed. “I want my dad back.” Brad agreed, but of course they had friends whose fathers were Marines and they kept their opinions to themselves, forging a bond of anger and loyalty to their own branch.
But Andrew felt a wince each time they cursed them. He’d studied Marines on the beach. Instead of the cruel dictators his friends sometimes described — bulldog fathers, abusive brothers — he noticed and memorized their bodies. The young ones all seemed to have the same broad shoulders, lean waists and sculpted stomachs. They had highandtight haircuts, just a wisp of blond or brown above their forehead, the rest shaved nearly to the scalp. It seemed every Marine was a carbon copy of another, even in middle age they retained the same blocky body, the same sharp haircut, not much lost in the dittoing process; an enticement duplicated at every turn.
Now they were a few feet from his cot, slapping each other, laughing and drinking cans of Coors hours before lunch. “Jarheads,” he whispered and felt himself begin to grow hard.
As the day wore on, and the Pacific sun gained in the sky, the pace slowed. It was taking over two hours before it was Andrew’s turn. After his ninth mile, he didn’t listen to his time and picked up his book and tried to read. Angel asked him to play tictactoe and then lines and boxes. They’d come here to escape the boredom, the ticktock of waiting at home filled with endlessly repeated night vision green CNN splendor, but it had caught them here as well.
Andrew looked out to the track when his friends and teachers were distracted and tried to swallow glimpses of men as they trod by. He hunted a particularly chiseled man, watched him gazelle his way down one side then waited until he came into view for his next lap. There seemed to be an endless array of chests and legs and arms to follow. The only motivation he could muster was to find some muscled grunt he could devour in 3second intervals every few minutes. These men became his clock, lulling him into a new time zone of awareness.
Hours of sun and running had tired him out, and he wanted to lie down. His head turned towards the track to watch runners from his lopsided angle, eyelids heavy, his one incentive: to find a tall, thick Marine jogging shirtless in tight, military green shorts. Then his eyes slugged closed again.
“What are you doing, lazy?” Angel asked. She’d gone to the school dance with him but had finally grown bored and disgusted waiting. Their last day going out had been locked in a friend’s house until he kissed her — their teeth grinding together in dry liplock. Now she hung on Brad’s shoulder.
“Oh. Nothing.” He was hypnotized and couldn’t move. The sun had finally set and the track lights had oozed on, flooding the scene with pools of harsh sodium light. When’s it my turn again? He rolled over onto his stomach to hide the bulge aching in his shorts.
“You wanna play Spades?” Brad asked. Angel nodded her head yes to plead and convince him to join.
“Naaah.” And Andrew closed his eyes again.
After Brad and Angel left, Andrew continued timing his eye openings and closings to catch a jogger as he passed by, more careful of who may be watching but dedicated to collecting more information with each lap. Blueshortswhitethighsweatychestredmarkbicep… blueshortswhitethighhairylegssweaty-chestveinbicep…
When that one’s mile was up, he’d find another and follow him in the same drowsy, dreamlike way. Time had evaporated with the last light, replaced by this new mechanism of measuring.
During his next lap Andrew scoped out a guy he could follow, found a lean and muscled running mate with broad shoulders and a deep, grooved spine that disappeared in gray shorts. He watched him jounce up and down with his stride, used the guy’s body to keep pace. Right leg left leg one — two — one — two. Keep running. The material was loose and flimsy around his thighs but the sweat had trickled down his back and showed its crease.
The runner’s skin was mottled and pink — like Andrew’s — from the run and the sun. A dark, green tattoo stood out in high relief in the shadows of his left shoulder blade. It looked to be a Japanese kanji character with crisscrossed lines forming a delicate ladder; a bird perched on a rung. As he pumped his arms back and forth the tattoo stretched and snapped, over and over again. Andrew was mesmerized with watching the muscles widen and strain, the tattoo rip, the rungs of the ladder fly apart and then tense back into a tight green poem.
In synch with the runner’s pace, the tattoo’s movement, his body was a complete world with its own synchronic tow. Then the guy pulled off, breaking the cord that connected them, walked to the tent near Andrew’s own, bent over, his hands on his shins, panting. One of his pals snuck up behind him and rolled a cold beer down his back. He bolted up, and, as Andrew passed on his final lap, the guy looked him in the eye, keeping eye contact with Andrew for a moment, grinned. Andrew looked down at his feet and watched his laces flop up and down, not aware of the men and women around him during the rest of his run. He tried to withdraw into that world he had created, but it had been smashed, and he couldn’t reconstruct his dull shadow running dream.
“Wow, Andy, you did that one quick!” a teacher said. “Almost under your record.”
“Really?” he said, kept his head down. Not hearing her. “Cool.”
He made it back to his side of the tent and used a soggy towel to dry his arms and legs. Don’t look. He tried not to look across to the right, to search for the man with the tattoo.
Andrew turned his head slightly, as if he were looking out across the track at an angle. The guys in the tent next to his, some curled on scratchy wool blankets, a few playing cards, jeered at one another. Finally, he spotted his running partner. The guy picked up a gym bag and began to walk away.
He watched as his runner left and, at one point, stopped, began to turn. Andrew jerked his head back and stared down at the ground. A shock rocked his stomach. It started at the base of his spine, traveled up his ribs and seemed to spread throughout his chest, up into his throat — tight and tingly. He turned his head back to where the man had been standing, but he was already out of sight.
What should I do? Andrew wanted to follow. Follow this man to the lockers, see if he would look at him again. He wanted to see that back again, remember that world mapped out in muscle and sweat. He must be going to shower. I can’t. Don’t be stupid. He’d never showered in public. Too afraid of his body. Other boys. Maybe they wouldn’t notice, won’t care. Or maybe someone will laugh. Tell me to get out. Those ideas of cruel Marines surfaced in his mind. Turned into identical copies of shoulder blades and pecs, pelvises fuzzy and erased — he’d yet to see anything to color in the region.
He sat for a moment, forgetting about the race, forgetting about the kids around him. Feeling that tightness in his back and throat. Stop it. Stop thinking about it. Do it. He gathered up his stuff and took off for the gym, leaving the safety of his tent, the wobbly city of noise and fantasies behind to make his way to the gym on the hill above the confusion.
The shock of airconditioning and fluorescents hardened the sweat and grime from all the day’s running into a shield. Even while he looked down at the floor, he could tell this was different from the school lockers. The same smell of chlorine and mildew burned and mingled, but here the men walked naked, their dicks hanging heavy and unashamed between their legs. They laughed and talked, swaggered bowlegged, slapped each other on the back. Andrew didn’t sense shame or shyness, just a joyful camaraderie.
He found a deserted section at the end of the room, far enough from the friendly taunts that sounded to him like threats, and took out his towel. He thought about wrapping it around his waist and pushing his underwear down, hiding himself from clear view, but he took a deep breath and tried to feel like he belonged. I’ll be naked soon anyway. Might as well just take them off. He slid out of the sweaty, white briefs and tossed them into a locker. He was embarrassed because his ball sack was wrinkled and tight and his penis had shrunk to a nub, like a wrinkled baby mouse. He wrapped the towel around him and walked toward the sound of the showers.
First, he went to a toilet stall. He tried to pull his penis out and stretch it so it didn’t look so small, but he was also relieved that it appeared lifeless. He peed, trying to take as much time as he could. He felt strange, standing barefoot on the tile, hearing the sound of his pee hit the water and men laughing around him.
When he opened the stall, he was confronted with a thin, black man toweling himself off. One leg was propped high up on a sink. He used the towel to reach between his legs before squeezing a generous yellow cream on his palm. His hands glided up and down his legs, smoothing it into his skin. Andrew moved away and balled up his towel and stuck it under a wooden bench.
Walking naked through a door toward the sound of water, the first thing he noticed in the long, steamy room was a line of glistening butts facing center. Andrew felt small again, whiter and weak.
Searching for an empty space, he let his eyes go blurry, tried not to detect objects in too much detail. Dizzy and tired, he couldn’t help but focus on tanned backs, white asses, curly strands of hair creeping from between butt cheeks, up backs. He saw sunbursts and flags, bulldogs and thorns branded and burned into their arms and legs. Lower: their callused, hairy feet, purple toenails, bruised, yellow, curled.
He walked the gauntlet, passed up several spaces that were too close to other men’s bodies, found a spot at the end of the room next to the wall. The water was cold and hard. He jumped back from the force but decided to leave it, rinsed himself under the frigid tap without soap, pleased to get the crusted salt and dirt off his body. What am I doing here? He felt some sort of protection wash away.
The steamy blur closest to him turned off the water and disappeared. Then Andrew peeked. He watched as they soaped in great clumsy circles, their hands brushing casually between their legs, over their balls and around dark round nipples.
The cold water didn’t help the conflict that raged inside. He wanted to stare and study the men around him but was compelled to keep his eyes from lingering for fear of a possible reaction. With enough sideways glances he did discover he was wrong. These men were all different, not the dittoed replicas he’d imagined. Their chests may have the same molded hardness, their backs sharing similar knotted geometries, but, below the waist, the similarities diverged. A pendulous scrotum hung low between one man’s legs like fleshy taffy pulled soft and left to drip in the steam. Angry red bulbs sprouted from great masses of hair. Velvety purples, dark, hidden browns designed to be petted and rubbed like the translucent veined ears of a hunting hound. It was difficult for him not to ogle the curled hairs of the black man who soaped up a mysterious sea urchin or the shriveled, dried fruit pointing like a small arrow to an Asian man’s feet.
The sight and discovery allowed Andrew to cup his own fragile, shriveled sex and feel as if it was a pet to be proud of — a strange, baby rodent to be fondled and displayed. Here I am, I’m one of you too!
His surreptitious show was interrupted when another body blocked his view.
“Need some soap?” the voice asked.
Andrew didn’t respond. Ignore him. Don’t talk to anyone.
“Huh?” he grunted. “Uh, yeah.”
He tried not to look at him, but as the guy bent over to pick up the soap, Andrew noticed the tattoo on his back. Him. It’s him.
Taking the offered soap, he tried not to touch his hand, which caused the soap to slip between his fingers and land by his foot. He knelt down to get it without averting his eyes and was seduced by the pink baby bird, raw and helpless, craning from its soaked nest. He was jolted awake as he felt an empathy to touch it, warm it, keep it alive. Then a glimpse of the small, green print in contrast with the white skin below the elastic hemline etched into his waist.
“Sorry,” Andrew squeaked out.
Andrew used the soap, lathering his body roughly so as not to linger too long on it, avoiding his privates, drowning that newborn mouse in a deluge of frigid water. When he was done, he handed the soap back.
“Thanks,” he said, finally looking the guy in the eyes. It’s him. My runner. The man smiled and turned around, putting his back against the stream of steaming water displaying himself to Andrew and the rest of the room.
Andrew hesitated a second and gave him an awkward smile back. His chest was pounding, and he couldn’t hear anything over the slosh of water, the clang of blood in his head. He turned off the shower and left the room in a trance.
He returned to the locker and toweled off vigorously, his skin pink and inflamed. Another locker opened behind him.
“You’re with the kids next to us, right?”
Andrew turned around and saw his runner facing a locker, his back rounded, as he dried off his toes. He let his gaze linger a second. He didn’t know what to say.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“This race is crazy. I don’t know why I decided to do it this year. Last year I said I would never do it again. Takes me days to recover.” The tattoo guy grinned. He seemed shy as well for a moment. “But I’m glad they didn’t cancel it. Guess it’s better than being over in that fucking desert.”
Andrew remained quiet, didn’t have words to respond. His body shook. Ever since the guy talked to him in the shower he shivered. It’s the water. I should have used the hot water. I’m freezing. His legs trembled as if to taunt his easy explanation. Knowing his voice would sound funny, he remained quiet. He looked quickly over at the guy and noticed he was still standing naked. If he were to say anything he’d have to say it soon. He said the desert. Andrew thought of his father, somewhere else on the planet — dry, sunny, hot.
Desperately, he wished the guy would — he didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know what he’d do if he did. Turning back around, he took out a clean pair of briefs and stretched them over his thighs and up to his waist. Better.
“What do those tattoos mean?” he choked out.
The guy got out shorts, put them on. No underwear. There was a silence and Andrew looked over at the guy smiling in his direction.
“You really want to know?”
“This one on my back,” he said, awkwardly pointing with his right finger over his right shoulder at the design on the left. “Is a symbol meaning man.”
Andrew looked at the lines of dark green ink but couldn’t focus, his body was still shaking.
“And this one down here,” he said, pulling down the elastic waistband of his shorts, revealing the small symbol that looked like it was crying. “Means love.”
“Cool,” Andrew said. Stupid. He wished he’d been able to say something else. He could have told him his dad was in the desert. That he wished he was here running instead of being over there.
“At least that’s what they told me when I got em. Could mean ‘stupid jarhead’ for all I know.”
He finished putting on his clothes and tossed his bag over his shoulder.
“Guess I’ll see ya out there,” the guy said.
The heat as he exited the gym stopped him, and the clean-wet turned sticky in an instant. With the shock of the salt and sweat, the force of what the guy had said hit him. Man. Love. Did he mean? He couldn’t be sure, but he felt that same shiver quake through him and a warm rush from his stomach make him gasp in surprise. His legs wobbled and he crouched for a moment in the dewy grass. Should I have said something? He looked behind him at the door but didn’t see anyone. Am I supposed to do something? Maybe it was nothing. A wriggle of life shot through the grass, too fast for him to discover what it was.
It was late, and he was sure the stars were out, but he couldn’t see them through the orange haze from the artificial light of the track city. It was sometime in the night, or was it morning? He returned to his tent, his hair still wet and slicked back. He felt awake, fever dreaming. Those were the same stars that those men in Kuwait were looking at. All those Marines. And his dad. They weren’t cruel, they were just men. He understood that now.
“Hey, Andy, where you been?” Angel asked. “You’re almost up.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, took a shower,” he said and then he mumbled something in his stupor. “Tattoos.”
“We should give you one!” she screamed.
She and the girls got out their bags and started searching for makeup. They pushed him down to use him as canvas. One girl found a black eyeliner pencil and started marking up his left bicep. She made a big, round schoolgirl heart. Another snatched away the pencil and put eyes and a smiling mouth inside it. After a third scratched in a line of jagged zigzag hair above the heart, Angel wrote her name in bold, block letters underneath.
When they let Andrew go he examined his arm. The design looked childish and silly, but he was happy to have something on his arm. He felt branded and grownup.
“Time’s up. Get out there,” Brad said and punched him in the arm. He knotted his shoes and stretched.
When he saw the boy on his team round the track, he stepped up to get ready.
“So, you have a tat,” he heard from behind.
He turned around and saw his runner from the gym. He had a shirt on now, but he was rubbing the small, blond hairs of his belly. “Angel, huh?”
“Oh. Yeah,” Andrew said, dizzy. “The girls started fooling around. You know.” The guy didn’t say anything. He smiled and ran away.
Before his team member reached the tent, Andrew took off to catch up. He ran hard, trying to keep his runner in sight, pushed himself, his legs beginning to burn, sucking in air. He felt the throbbing of his heartbeat accelerating, and the blood in his head whizzing past his ears. He kept running but didn’t see his companion.
When he was nearly done with the first lap, the rain started.
It fell in large, heavy drops, soaking his shirt. Andrew continued to slop through the rain; it seemed to give him more energy, to urge him on to run harder and longer. He pulled the soggy shirt over his head and pushed it into the waistband of his shorts, looked up to the sky and saw the rain in slow motion as it moved past the track lights. It shivered and danced in the air as it fell, then sped up as it bombarded the ground.
Andrew lifted his head up to the rain and looked directly into the soda lights. They blinded him for a moment. Dry me up. He’d evaporate in their unavoidable stare — their desert gaze — while simultaneously receiving his spring rain. When he looked back down, the track had disappeared. Everything was blotted out by a blurry hole of black and red and green. He stared into that hole, seemed there might be an answer there where he could see — everything — brilliant and alive in night vision green. Surrounded by soldiers, he saw his father, the back of his runner. It was his map, a guide. Follow me. The rain missiles attacked without killing, glowing pupils searched him. Leave, run, escape. He would run off into the night, into the jungle.
Andrew drank in the rain and kept running — one lap finished, another and another. He took his shirt out of his waistband and tried to dry off his face, wipe away this mirage, and noticed the drawing on his arm. The heart had lost its shape and a smeary, purple mess was running down into his armpit. Andrew imagined it read like another character –a hieroglyph of some kind that held meaning in its water brushed lines and voids. An answer was there, an answer to these shivers, to this ache.
This fictional short story originally appeared in Grain magazine in 2006