Proving Grounds — Part 4
It was all to impress a girl. In hindsight, it had all been to impress a girl.
Two years ago, Nathaniel Romero was just an average and unremarkable kid in his last year of high school; just another nobody with no plan and no real idea of what to do with his life. Closer pursuits occupied his mind.
On one unassuming day, a girl called him asking for a ride to the mall. He wanted desperately. She was a flirt, the kind of girl who smiled at everyone and especially the boys. She laughed at all their jokes and then called them for rides and the little things some girls often feel they need to get by. She was the kind who owned thirty shades of lipstick from the subtle enticement of her Nearly Nudes to the vibrancy and voluptuousness of a Fire Engine Red. Though you’d never hear her say it, she loved when the boys centered their attention only on her and she would never turn down a compliment. On that day, she was teasingly wearing a miniskirt, showcasing long, toned legs Nathaniel fought hard not to gawk at every time she wasn’t looking. He was absorbed by her grace and beauty, and hopelessly enthralled by her charms… as were so many others. When she asked for a ride to the mall, he was all too eager to answer her the request.
As the two entered the mall, they passed the wall of recruiting offices. A group of boys wearing Marine Corps tee shirts stood beside a large pull-up bar, painted red and wrapped in white tape outside one of the offices. They were rooting and cheering as the boys each tried to do their pull-ups. The recruiter, wearing a tan shirt and blue pants with a red stripe down the side, marked with dozens of other official looking military regalia watched and counted out. His voice echoed throughout the corridors as he projected far louder than was needed if the goal was only to he heard by the few boys immediately in front of him. It was hard to miss the spectacle.
“Twelve… Thirteen… Fourt-… Nope, kipping.”
“Freakin’ morons.” Romero said to the girl, laughably mocking what, to him, was a Neanderthal sort of machismo. “Like pull-ups are going to help them fight a war with guns and robots.”
The girl in the pleated skirt didn’t seem to agree. She looked over at the boys, watching their show. After she had an eyeful for herself, she dismissed Romero’s comment with a, “Humph.”
Indignantly and with a bit of surprise, “What?” Romero asked.
“I think it’s hot to see guys like that. I like big arms.” She said. The girl watched another boy, this one also about their age, mount the bar. His arm muscles flexed a little more than what seemed necessary for someone still in high school. After an admittedly impressive go at the bar, the recruiter yelled “Twenty!” The boy dropped to the floor, chest out — like he had just personally won the war on body fat. The other boys clapped, congratulated him, and cheered him on like a returning war hero.
The girl in the mini-skirt bit her lip, hinting at less than subtle thoughts.
“Did you see that? That’s so hot…” she said to Nathaniel, her excitement, only just barely contained, eroded his manhood. He was taken for a moment by her flippant callousness. Jealously, Nathaniel wondered if she even remembered he was there. She had, but in truth, she gave little more thought to him than she would give to her phone or her purse.
From across the hall, the recruiter’s focused eyes zeroed on the lingering stare of the two overlooking his potential recruits.
“Hey!” he said, calling out to Nathaniel.
Awkwardly, Nathaniel looked around, searching for someone else who the recruiter may have been talking to. He saw no one, and pointed uncertainly to himself.
“Yeah you.” Replied the recruiter. “You think you’re up to it? Want to give it a try?”
Everyone was looking at him then. He looked at the girl who gave him a look that implied, “Go on. Impress me.”
Nathaniel marched up with all the bravado he could fake. His father’s Latin blood refused to allow his pride to deny such a public challenge. That didn’t mean he was excited about it. Unfortunately, he was not the particularly imposing force to behold that his father was. He was little more than five feet eight inches and maybe one hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. He had is father’s dark Hispanic complexion and his deep cleft chin, but lacked that rugged manliness that he hoped to one day inherit. Instead, he was small framed… like his mother, and with her green eyes and red hair. The only athletic thing he had ever done in his life was running. He could run like the wind, and he could run forever. He had made All-State in cross-country, but running, all by itself, wasn’t that impressive of a feat. He was just a little guy; certainly not a warrior.
He felt surrounded by all the boys on his way to the bar. They were getting ready for the military life and he could feel their judgmental, dismissive eyes upon him. With a deep breath, he looked to the imposing, iron rod, jumped and mounted the bar. What he lacked in physical strength, he made up for in tenacity. He wouldn’t refuse a challenge, and certainly not in front of such a beautiful girl.
The recruiter explained the rules.
“Straight up. Straight down. Your chin must clear the bar. If your legs swing to help you get up, that’s a kip. There’s no kipping. Any questions?”
Nathaniel shook his head. The recruiter asked if he was ready. With a look of determination and through pursed lips, he nodded his head.
“Begin.” said the recruiter.
Nathaniel pulled with everything he had. He found the first one to be easier than he had expected. His chin touched the bar and climbed just over it. “One.” The recruiter counted aloud. Nathaniel relaxed back to the downward position, dangling by his arms. One of the other boys in the procession said something about him kipping on his way up. The recruiter waved for him to keep it to himself. Nathaniel pulled again, this time noticing a strain he hadn’t felt the first time. It was much harder on the second pull to reach the bar. He pulled until he got close enough and stretched his neck. “Two” said the recruiter again. He dropped back to the dangling position, this time so hard he thought he would lose grip of the bar. Not wanting to give away his moment of weakness, he gritted his teeth and tightened his grasp. He looked up and began to pull. He made it half way when he felt the unstoppable force of his body no longer able to perform. His mind told his arms to keep moving. They, however, denied him the privilege of obedience. With a furious fit of what last reserves of strength and determination he had, he gave a last push to try to overcome the bar and his body’s silent revolt. He inched slowly, ever slowly, as he stretched his neck and reached his chin desperately towards the bar. His teeth were bared, as the tendons in his neck were taut. As his body curled and writhed to break the precipice of this humble hurdle, he started to shake. Finally, at the end of his humiliating climb, he heard the recruiter.
He dropped down and fell from the bar, barely landing on his feet. He was shaking a little and his face was beet red. It was humiliating. The recruiter didn’t seem to notice, however.
“Not bad for a first try. You know, three is all you need to make it into the Marines. Ever thought about your future, son?” said the recruiter.
A confused look highlighted Nathaniel’s face. Join the Marines? Why would he do something so stupid? He didn’t want to be rude, as much for social courtesy as for the fact that he was literally surrounded by young men who had done just that. Internally, though, he scoffed at the idea. That was when he looked back to the girl in the mini-skirt, the same one who pushed him onto that bar with her seducing eyes. She did not seem interested anymore, since now she was off talking to one of the other guys standing around the bar. After all that, she didn’t even notice. A snarl grew in his eyes.
“Ah…” said the recruiter. “So that’s what you’re after.” He looked at Romero with a grin before leaning in and whispering to him. “Well, I can tell you what will keep her attention.” He pointed to a poster hanging in his office, beyond the big window with the Marine’s logo on it. It was of a Marine dressed in a dark blue coat with medals, gold buttons, red and gold markings, a big white hat, and most notably, holding a sword. He had a sword. Nathaniel found himself perplexed by the fact that he had a sword. Why would he need a sword? What would he possibly do with a sword? That made even less sense to Romero than the pull-ups. Still, it was impressive. The Marine looked focused and distant, dangerous, but dignified. “You earn one of those and any women you want will be on you like…” The recruiter caught himself and pulled back his mildly lecherous smirk. “Think of it this way, by the time you earn the title and one of those coats, three pull-ups will be like nothin’, but by that point, you won’t need to do any more pull ups to keep a woman’s attention.”
Nathaniel stared at the poster as the boys around him conversed among themselves, and of course, with the girl in the mini-skirt.
“I’ll tell you what, let me see your phone.”
Nathaniel gave the recruiter his phone. The recruiter took it and opened his own. He said to the phone, “Give contact info; keywords: Military, Marines.”
He bumped the two phones together and Nathaniel’s made a chime.
“There you go. Whenever you’ve got questions, just search your contacts for Military.”
Nathaniel looked at the new contact. S-S-G-T Brandon Nobles.
“What’s S-S-G-T mean?” he asked.
“Staff Sergeant. I’m Staff Sergeant Nobles. Don’t be shy to give me a call. I have to take these boys out for a run, but I’ll be seeing you later. Have a good day, you hear? Poolies, form up in the parking lot.”
Nathaniel watched as they all filed outside. It was a bit ridiculous to see nearly grown men act that way, but he was a bit envious that they had something that they cared about way more than he cared about anything. Dejected, he went back to the girl who honestly didn’t care anymore, at all.
“That was fun.” She said as she watched the last of the boys leave through the mall’s exit. “I got one of their numbers! He said he was going to be…” her voice faded away to Nathaniel as he wished he could just have skipped the whole event. He really didn’t want to hear any more about her fascination or about if she had some new crush. He noticed, then, that she had grown silent. Not wanting her to realize he hadn’t been listening, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.
“That’s awesome.” The girl was oblivious to the sarcastic cynicism in his voice.
“So, you thinking about it?” She asked him.
“Thinking about what?” he asked.
“You know, joining the Marines?”
He was surprised at the question. “I don’t think so. I don’t need all that mess. People telling you what to do all the time, getting yelled at, and those stupid haircuts.”
“High and tights.” She replied.
“They’re called high and tights. That guy told me all Marines get high and tights once they are in boot camp. I think it’s hot.” She bit her lip again and made a coo.
He paused for a moment. She spoke again.
“You’re probably right. It’s probably best you didn’t. You really wouldn’t fit in.”
“Why not?” He exclaimed. “I could do it just as good as any of those losers.”
She said with a sympathetically dismissive tone, “Nah. You’re just a nice guy.”
“So? That doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not really that. You’re just…” She paused, looking for the right words. “You’re just not dangerous, you know? I don’t see you ever being able to hurt someone if you had to. You’re just too nice.”
She tried to say it as a compliment, but it wasn’t. Every word cut him at his manhood, and yet she continued relentlessly.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, you know, just being a nice guy. You’re that type guy that a girl can just call to give her a ride to the mall for no other reason than because he’s sweet. That’s it. You’re not trying to get anything else out it. You don’t know how nice it is to just have a guy friend who’s nice. You’re, you know… sweet.”
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