I was stretched across the floor dizzy and floating over a pool of sweat and drool, exasperated. Propped up on my hands and feet, somewhat like the push-up position, my legs climbed mountains, but the rest of my body never moved. The floor was soaked and each time I moved one of my knees slammed into the tile beneath me. They say if you keep this up, you’ll leave with “holes” in your knees. The man across the room kept up his rhythmic counting, “1, 2, 3, 1. 1, 2, 3, 2!” Drenched in sweat, my legs keep climbing mountains and the guy fixed over me screams into my ear, “You’re supposed to be the example!”
Splash. My first tear mixed with sweat hits the puddle beneath me, and I think back to that day in my dorm room.
“You need to do something.” I don’t know why I always feel the demand to call my mom whenever things get bad. Sometimes I feel that if she says another word I literally might burst. I never do. Every time she talks to me, she somehow eases in the the phrase “you need to”. And at this point in the conversation I was probably holding the phone away from my ear picking at the dirt underneath my nails. “You need to get a job,” she continues, “either that or join the military,” how many times have I heard that?
Back in high school recruiters would call my house asking for me. How’d you get this number, I’d ask. Sometimes I’d tell the recruiter that I didn’t want to be a killer. Other times I would just hang up. How the hell I ended up in one of their offices, I do not know.
Petty Officer Boss. Isn’t that ironic, Boss? Is this the guy who used to call me all the time? Probably not. I bet he knows the guy. I get the urge to ask him how he gets people’s number, but my better judgment tells me to keep quiet, and I do. Dressed in white head to toe, he lead me to his desk and we began a long process of questions and paperwork.
“How many times have you done drugs?”
“Never,” I answered.
“How tall are you?”
“Five foot eleven.”
“How much do you weigh?”
“One hundred and fifty five pounds.”
“Do you have any tattoos or unusual scars?”
“I have one tattoo.”
“So, when was the last time you smoked pot?”
Boss hands me a form and tells me to write a short essay about my tattoo — what it is, where its at, and what it means. I quickly scribbled something about the angel on my right abdomen and how it represents my mom’s eternal beauty. I don’t know how true that is, but my mother did like angels at one time. When I was finished I handed him the paper and waited for his response. He briefly scanned it and slightly nodded his head. I hope that’s a nod of approval. Boss just kept nodding and I sat there waiting for him to say something.
“Man“, he finally said, “this is probably the most put-together essay I’ve read. Better than most bla — kids your age,” he swiftly recovered.
I just stare at him. He doesn’t look back.
It seemed like hours went by and Boss lead me across the room to another guy dressed in white sitting behind a larger desk. This guy looked somewhat like the police captain in The DaVinci Code movie, short and stout, dark haired, and mean looking. After a few minutes of conversation I could see he really wasn’t mean, he just looked the part.
“Son, I hear that you’re interested in joining the Navy,” he said. Instantly I felt the pressure. “I’m not even going to lie to you,” he went on, “it’s the end of April and we do have a quota to meet. We can get you down to Jacksonville this weekend so you can draw up a contract.” How did we get here so fast, I thought.
“Sir,” I spoke, “I already had plans for this weekend.”
“Then what’s the problem,” he smiled.
“I promised my friends that I would go out with them,” lie.
“Young man, I understand that friends can be important, but this weekend could be really crucial for you. Your friends will always be there.”
Be there? Friends? What friends? I’m pretty sure I pushed them all away. I don’t know what was wrong with me, but ever since I started school last fall, I hadn’t been right. Its like wave after wave of deep misery consumed me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t swim out. Sometimes it got so bad that I rarely came out of my dorm room to go to class, that and the occasional run to the cafeteria. I remember a couple of month’s back I ran into Alicia outside the café. We hardly ever saw each other anymore. We actually made a game out of it. Every time we did see each other we laughed and counted how many times it had been that semester. I loved Alicia. We were never an item, but I still loved her, and she knew it. She gave me a big grin and said hello; I gave her the peace sign and kept right into the cafe. The usual laughter and chatter filled the room. What was so damn funny? Why can’t I laugh? When I finished my rounds in the buffet lines I searched for a seat in the smallest corner I could find. Too bad for me, that corner was already full. Forced to eat with the public. I situated myself close to the exit and began my meal.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Alicia and her friend were sitting behind me. A familiar feeling began to gather in my chest, I knew what would come next. I quickly choked down my food and prepared to make my departure. I stood and made my way over to the trash to discard of my tray. My tear ducts were already swelling. I kept my composure as I headed for the door. Where can I find solitude? The closest place that came to mind was the restroom by the campus post office. It was always empty. Once I got there I locked myself in the last stall, sat on the floor and closed my eyes. God, what is wrong with me, I quietly screamed. The congestion in my chest grew. It rose to my throat and created a lump there. The snot in my nose became loose and water began to spew inside my eyelids. Waiting there until I felt better seemed like the logical thing to do, so I waited. If only mom could see me now. You need to get it together. When I was ready, I emerged from my cell. A glimpse of my reflection caught my attention on the wall and it drew me in. I stood in front of the mirror for a while and studied the boy staring back. I wish I could run away. It was for this reason I went to Jacksonville. It was for this reason I signed away the next six years of my life.
About a week and a half after Jacksonville I was gone. How many people did I forget to say goodbye to? They probably won’t care. If I can appear out of nowhere then I can disappear back. But what about Alicia? We went to see a movie before I left. It was somewhat awkward, or at least I thought. Talking in a theatre is rude, so we were silent for most of the night. Afterwards, I walked her to her car.
“Well, it’s been real,” my trademarked goodbye.
“I’m going to miss you,” she said.
Things got sad very quickly. She said she’d miss me before, but now I believed her. Why couldn’t she see that I had already been gone? All semester I had been gone. She opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat so that her legs hung out the car. I stood over her as her cheerless eyes searched my face. I wanted to kiss her badly, but I didn’t. Why must a goodbye be so miserable?
“Let me give you my address so you can write me,” she spoke again.
She found a slip of paper and jotted down her information. I love you Alicia, I love you — the words never came out of my mouth. When she finished her arm reached out and handed me the paper.
“Well, you can give me a hug,” she said.
“Goodbye Alicia,” I forced a smile.
“Goodbye. I love you,” did she say it? Did she really just say it?
“I love you too.” She had no idea. Not a clue. My heart was ready to pour itself. All the things I wanted to say. Was it worth it? Now? I turned around and walked to my car. I wonder if this was it. Was this my exit back into nowhere.
“You’re supposed to be the example!” the guy over me screamed. The pained grunts of recruits hovered over the floor. How did I get here? My legs are so numb.
All photos provided by The United States National Archive.
Thanks for reading this article. If you like it, please let me know what you think in the comments below.
More from Malik Betton: