One night my buddy, Mitchell Flowers, and I decided to check ourselves into the VA hospital in Buffalo for rehab. This was just after our friend Billy Chapman killed himself. Mitchell thought it was a sign.
“Look, man,” he said. “We’ve had some good times, but I think we ought to get our shit together.”
I was twenty-five, a veteran of the Iraq war. I hacked up chunks of phlegm from all the cigarettes I’d already smoked in my life. We sat in our two bedroom apartment watching Jeopardy, screaming out answers while we drank beer and grew more and more intoxicated.
“What is the Civil War?” I said.
Mitchell pulled a cigarette from his pack. “Dude, are you even listening to me?”
I took a drink from my beer and leaned back.
Mitchell blew smoke toward the ceiling. “The war’s over for us,” he said. “Time to figure out what we’re gonna do next.”
I was distracted because it was Final Jeopardy and I had done especially well that night.
“Yeah,” I said.
I leaned in and listened for the clue.
“Who is Sir Francis Drake?” I shouted.
Mitchell stood and walked over to the TV. He turned it off and then walked back to his seat. He lit another cigarette and softly tossed the lighter at me.
“Fitzsimmions,” he said, “What do you want, brother?”
* * *
In the VA parking lot we were greeted by protesters who held signs with burnt babies and wounded veterans on them. The President had just announced that we would be in Afghanistan until 2014, and possibly beyond. 50,000 troops were still in Iraq.
“When will it end?” they kept chanting, “How long will our nation be at war?”
Mitchell and I checked in at the front desk. The nurse came around and drew us a little map, pointed us in the direction of the elevators, said, “You’re looking for the psych ward.”
When we arrived we were separated. Mitchell was going to have special tests run because of the brain injury he’d sustained during his final tour. Later, when he showed up with his afro shaved off, he told me they’d strapped him to a gurney and performed electroshock therapy on him. He told me they ran a hot soldering iron around in his head, trying to mend the broken connections. I knew he was making it up, but I didn’t want to say so, lose him on our first day. Anyhow, sometime later he admitted it.
“That shit before was just a joke,” he said. “They shaved me down so they could see inside my head, read my thoughts.”
After lunch they gathered us all, the new arrivals, five or six of us. “The class of 2011,” one of the orderlies laughed, as they marched us into a conference room to watch a film about what our group sessions should look like. They’d filmed a bunch of guys talking about the moment they knew they’d hit the bottom, about the dumb shit they’d done to ruin their lives. I kept thinking about how pathetic it was to get up there and say that stuff, like crapping your pants in public. I wasn’t ready to admit to any of it.
* * *
After the movie I met with my personal counselor, Amanda. She was a beautiful woman in high heels and a skirt. I liked her right away, but that didn’t mean I was going to make her life easy.
“Mr. Fitzsimmons,” she said, “it’s nice to meet you.”
“Tully,” I said. “Just call me Tully.”
Her office was full of light and it made her degrees, which hung on the wall behind her, glow.
“Those supposed to prove you can cure me?” I asked her, pointing at them.
She smiled and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her desk. “Is that what you want? Do you want to be cured?”
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”
She smiled. She’d probably seen this act a few times. Though she looked young in the light of her office, maybe my age, which would mean she was a newly minted doctor or maybe even doing some kind of residency.
“Why are you here, Tully?” she said.
“The food. I heard the food is pretty killer,” I said.
She laughed. “Someone lied to you.”
“Figures.” I stood up and went to the bookshelves behind me, started running my finger over the spins of all her books. “These come with the office?” I said.
“No, they’re mine,” she said.
I pulled one of the books off the shelf. It had to do with PTSD, which was all the rage when dealing with vets.
“Why are you really here, Tully?”
“I already told you, Doc, three squares.”
“You’re serious about recovering, aren’t you?”
“I’ll never drink another drop in my life, Doc, if that’s what you want to hear.”
“This isn’t about what I want, Tully.”
I put the book back. I sat down in my chair again. I couldn’t tell her, just then, that I had only come for Mitchell. Then she might make me leave, I thought. Then she might want to ask me real questions.
“I’ll say whatever you need me to, Doc.”
“The truth works.”
I leaned forward and smiled. “I told you twice now, Doc,” I said. “This isn’t going to work if you don’t listen to me, now is it?”
* * *
My roommate’s name was Ryan Bobbitt. Bobbitt never said a word, was, for all I knew, brain dead, or, at the very least, a deaf mute. Always, during our daily group meetings, Doc. Johnson, the head shrink, would ask Bobbitt a question, as if he might, this time, answer. It was a sad, pathetic thing to watch. Sometimes it seemed like the Doc was just teasing Bobbitt, but the truth, as far as I could tell, was that he believed in what he was doing, genuinely felt that he could help even the worst among us, which is why I hated him so much.
We were in our fifth group session when I lost it, when I couldn’t take Doc Johnson and his stupid questions anymore.
“Ryan, what’s your idea of a full and happy life?” There was a substantial silence.
We sat in a semicircle facing Doc Johnson. Every day we did this, discussing one thing or another, telling stories or even sitting silently. The Doc wasn’t one to press. Mostly he found ways to coax things out of people.
“What do we think, gentlemen, how would we define a full and happy life? What would we want?”
I snickered, which was my first mistake.
“Tully,” Doc Johnson said, “what do you think?”
I paused for a moment. I had an answer but I was weighing my options. It would have been easy enough, playing this game: money and a beautiful woman, a big house and a white picket fence. I could’ve said the shit he wanted to hear. Not recovering but faking it.
“I was just thinking that Bobbitt, his wish would be pretty simple.”
“How is that?” Doc Johnson said.
“Well, I suppose he’d want his mind back, for starters.”
Some of the guys laughed. A few sat there with blank stares.
Mitchell tapped me on the knee, whispered, “Go easy, brother. Go easy.”
“Well, what about you Tully,” Doc Johnson said. “Are your wants so different from Mr. Bobbitt’s?”
“How could they be the same,” I said. “Look at the dude.”
Bobbitt sat there drooling on himself and the rest of the guys got quiet. No one was going to join me in my rebellion. No one thought I was being funny anymore. I felt a sudden rush of guilt, a stink that could not be scrubbed away.
“I suppose, in a manner of speaking, there isn’t much difference between any of us and Ryan,” Doc Johnson said. “We all, it would seem to me, suffer from an inability to speak, at least sometimes.”
I could’ve cried, apologized, like those dudes in the videos we’d watched when we first arrived. I could’ve fallen to my knees and confessed everything, every nasty minute of my life, every crushing ounce of disappointment and shame and fear. I could have done all that, but instead, without any real provocation, I stood up and knocked my chair back.
“I’m nothing like that fucking retard,” I said.
I could see the sadness in Doc Johnson’s eyes. He knew he was losing me. I could see his mind working it through, trying to find the one thing he might say to calm me.
“A full and happy life, Tully,” Doc Johnson said. “What is your version of a full and happy life?”
Everyone was watching me to see how I’d handle this.
“A cigarette and a cold beer,” I said.
“Is that all you need to be happy?”
I knew that he was trying to work his voodoo now, to get me talking about drinking, which would only lead to me talking about the war and about coming home and about how home wasn’t the same anymore, how it wasn’t really like being home at all.
I stood there staring at him. I turned to Mitchell.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Mitchell looked up at me. I could tell by the way he shook his head just slightly that he didn’t want to, that he thought I was making an ass of myself.
Mitchell looked over at Doc Johnson and gave him a kind of nod.
“It’s your call,” Doc Johnson said.
Mitchell looked up at me, again. “I’m gonna stay,” he said.
I felt betrayed.
“Fine,” I said, and now I was beginning to panic. “You stay here with this lifeless pack of fuckups. You go ahead and hold hands and talk about how bad it hurts.”
“Come on, man,” Mitchell said. He reached out for me but I pulled away.
I looked around at the rest of them. They were looking down at the floor, waiting for my outburst to be over.
“What’s the matter,” I said, talking to Mitchell. “You gonna cry like some school girl bitch?”
Mitchell didn’t say anything. He looked away.
I started walking toward the door. No one was going with me. They were ready to sit in that circle and talk about their drinking and the war, about the lives they saw in their nightmares and the ones they saw in their dreams.
“You dumb motherfuckers,” I said. “They can’t cure us. There ain’t no cure for what we got.”
* * *
It was snowing outside, the thick, wet, lake-effect kind that clings to everything. The protesters were there again. Now they were making snow angels in the parking lot, singing songs about peace and love. I heard the words, but could make nothing of their meaning. Not then, anyhow.
I’d been sober for a shade under a week. I had nowhere to go, so I walked, looking for the nearest bar, thinking maybe I’d have a drink, because it was around four o’clock, which meant happy hour would start soon, somewhere.
The snow was so thick and blinding that I could hardly see my next step, as if God was trying to keep me from the places where I felt most familiar. Everything vanished. I lurched forward, drawn on by the sound of people’s voices calling out to one another. For a few seconds everyone knew the same panic. Down the alleyways and in the streets, I felt the future bearing down on me. Something yet to come. A vision. An inevitability.
The thick powder piled higher and higher as if it might bury us alive. Then, just like that, it stopped. My counselor, Amanda, was up ahead. The snow had lifted just in time for me to see her, but she hadn’t seen me, I was certain, so I chased after her.
A few blocks later she entered the city’s art museum. I watched her through the glass doors. She took off her coat and smiled at the guard. She walked into the gallery and didn’t notice when I followed.
Inside they were showcasing the work of a mad man named Henry Darger. The attendant let me in for free when I told her I was a vet. There were three rooms with the Darger stuff. His paintings and collages were full of little girls, children, who were at war.
I found Amanda studying a painting in the furthest room over. A group of small girls were surrounding a dragon, trying to bring it to its knees. I wanted to reach across the length of that room and touch her. I wanted to ask her what she saw when she looked into it.
There were a group of people near her, other professional types. A man approached and I heard him say, “You work with the damaged souls over at the VA hospital, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t call them that,” she said.
“Well, lost souls, then?”
“I don’t know that they’re anymore lost than you or I.”
He leaned in and touched her arm. “I doubt we have those kinds of problems,” he said.
Right then she spotted me.
She walked over and stood in front of me. “Tully, what are you doing here?” she said. She put her coat down on a bench, delicately. She reached out to touch my hand, but I stepped back.
I couldn’t look at her because my eyes were welling up. I felt the sudden need to be held. I was convinced that if I ran I would find salvation in the snow covered streets. Amanda’s face was very familiar to me, the face of someone I’d wronged before.
I was sure she knew all my sins.
* * *
I stumbled into a bar a few blocks away. It reeked of home. The people, sitting there in the dark, all seemed so happy to see me. How I could I refuse them? An overwhelming thirst came over me. I didn’t want to abandon sobriety so much as I felt I had to.
When the place closed I slept in the alleyway behind the bar. I covered myself in garbage bags and shared warmth with the rats. Who, I wonder, can envision the depths of their own despair? I lay there, my body pressed close to the ground, the cold creeping in. I wasn’t the only living thing enduring the loneliness of night. But how could I, with my mind lost in the needs of my body, draw comfort from that? And if all the heat finally seeped from me, and then I slipped into a long dark sleep, would any part of me even care? Would my life be any different?
I couldn’t stay asleep. I found an all-night diner a few blocks over. It was silent expect for the humming of the florescent lights. The city was dead, no traffic, no sirens, and I felt, for a few seconds, like I’d walked into a world void of life. I sat at a booth near the door. I made a fuss sitting down, to see if anyone was there. I didn’t want to be alone, not anymore.
A moment later a woman appeared. She looked fifty, or maybe a touch younger. Her eyes looked heavy. She smiled. She seemed genuinely happy to see me. As she got closer I was sure I knew her, perhaps because she had the same face as my mother, the same optimistic worry written into the corners of her smile. It didn’t matter what I’d done wrong, she was going to take me in, let me rest, even if I was destined to return the same damaged man again and again.
“I have enough for a cup of coffee, but nothing left for tip,” I said.
She reached into her apron and grabbed a note pad, took out a pen and wrote down my order.
“Is that alright?” I said.
“Don’t trouble yourself about that,” she said. “It’s nice to have a visitor.”
She turned to walk away but I stopped her.
“I’m sorry about the smell.”
She put her hand on my forearm. “I know you’re hurtin, honey. I can see that.” Then she reached for the cross around her neck, pressed it between her fingers.
“I didn’t mean for you to see it,” I said.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. It’ll be alright.”
I looked down at my hands, bowing my head so I wouldn’t have to look her in the eyes.
“You sit here just as long as you want,” she said.
After that she left me alone, short of bringing refills, to warm up and be with my thoughts, which was a horrible but necessary gift.
Before we went to the VA, Mitchell and I had talked about reenlisting. The truth is that part of me missed the war. It was like Mitchell said once: 95% of the time the war was shit. 95% of the time you just wanted to get out. But, when you left, all you could think about was that other 5% when it wasn’t shit, when there was something about it that you could never find again.
Our trip to the VA meant that we couldn’t return to the Marine Corps. We knew that and we went anyway. I was thankful for it, that that was no longer an option. I didn’t want to go back. I knew that.
* * *
Once the sun came up I put my money on the table and left. I walked a few blocks over and sat on the steps of the municipal building watching people walk to work. I thought about Doc Johnson. I thought about Mitchell and the rest of those guys and what they might talk about that day in group. I thought about going back and trying to give an honest answer.
I looked out over the street. There were men in business suits, women in skirts. They moved with a kind of determination. They had things to do that they truly believed were important. Nothing could shake their confidence, their belief in the promise of better things. All of them seemed to have a bright future.
I wanted everything they had.