I’ve avoided my wife all morning. Since I got back from over there—which was six weeks ago now—I’ve barely even looked at her. Last night we went to dinner at Applebee’s—she had the Tequila Lime Chicken with steamed rice and a vegetable medley and I had the Bourbon Onion Steak (medium-well) with a baked potato. I also had the vegetable medley. It was fine. During dinner, I think my wife and I spoke a couple dozen words—eight of which were us saying, “Oh, yeah?” The night before that we went to dinner at Red Robin—which was also fine. I got the Prime Chophouse Burger with extra pickles and a side of honey mustard—which is what I usually get when we go to Red Robin. My wife got the Burnin’ Love Burger with extra cheese and a side of fried onion strings. She also asked for a side of BBQ sauce. She usually just uses ketchup, but since I’ve been back from over there she’s ordered BBQ sauce. She seems to be enjoying the BBQ sauce more.
I’ve also started drinking again. Not when we go out or anything, but if she goes to Costco or meets up with her girlfriends at the Olive Garden, then I usually have a highball or two. I used to drink highballs of Old Turkey rye, but I could tell when she got home she could smell it on me—she never said anything or nothing, I could just tell—so I’ve since switched to Smirnoff vodka. I don’t really like the taste of vodka or anything, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle and all.
About two weeks after I got back from over there, my wife and I got an invitation in the mail. There was to be a party with my old infantry, and they were giving out awards for things like bravery or courage or honor or one of those buzz words the Army likes to pat themselves on the back for. I was getting honored for one of those adjectives, but I don’t remember which one it was. I think maybe they were giving me a plaque, too. Maybe. My wife said she thought it was so thoughtful and wonderful and kind and all of those things that wives say. But as she was telling me all of those things my award was supposed to be, all I could do was stare at her. It was like a stranger was standing in my kitchen reading me the mail. My wife simply was not there.
I ended up saying something like—and don’t quote me on this—“Oh, really?” After that I went into the basement and played Xbox. I don’t remember which game I played, though. That’s happened to me since I’ve been back: the more I play, the less I seem to remember. My mind is in a lull and I’m two steps behind where I think I should be. Nothing seems tan...
As I played Xbox, I stole a few nips from a flask I’d hidden under the couch. It was Gilbey’s gin—which is fine—and when I went upstairs I don’t think she could smell it.
Before I left for over there I don’t even remember having an Xbox. Maybe my wife got it for me as a homecoming present. Maybe. If she did, it was awfully nice. Though, I don’t think I told her I thought so. Or maybe I did tell her and just forgot. Maybe that was it.
A few days later I was in the basement eating a junior bacon cheeseburger and a bowl of chili from Wendy’s. I was also playing Xbox—this time I was playing FIFA, I’m sure of it—and that stranger who was reading me the mail came down and told me it was time to go. I asked the stranger where we were going and she said it was to get my award. The one that was for bravery, courage, or honor and was going to be thoughtful, wonderful, or kind. It took about eight or nine more minutes to finish my game of FIFA, the junior bacon cheeseburger, and the rest of my chili before I got ready. Then the mail-reading-stranger drove us to the V.A.
We walked in and the place smelled like Ball Park Franks and stale Coors Light. The smell didn’t bother me, but the stranger who drove me to the V.A. said it made her sick. She immediately went to the bathroom and I was left alone.
Later, before they started handing out the awards, I ordered the stranger her second Tanqueray and soda with three limes and ordered a seltzer water with lemon for myself. When I delivered it, I overheard her gossiping with one of our neighbors about why Mr. Geere up the street had moved away. After that I went to the bathroom and chugged the three Coors Lights I had stashed earlier in the night. I don’t think anyone saw me, but I guess I wasn’t looking for anyone either.
Even though the awards ceremony was for me and my infantry, I didn’t see anyone I recognized. Their faces were blank, nameless. But they all seemed to be nodding at me, curious and attentive. I didn’t know what else to do but nod back, so I nodded back. The entire night, though, we never said anything to one another, it was just the nodding.
When it was time to give out the awards it turned out the Army decided to give me an award for “the distinction of honor”—or at least that’s how they put it. As I walked up to claim the plaque I was terrified I’d have to give a speech. But the man—a Sergeant of some sorts—simply handed me the cheap piece of wood and offered me a limp handshake. There was a single flash from a nearby photographer and then the Sergeant directed me back to my seat.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, the stranger who read me the mail told me how proud she was my achievement(s), but all I could think about was the game of FIFA I wanted to play when I got home.
Shortly after I got over there I was sent to a small village just outside of Baghdad—I don’t remember its name, though—and stationed outside the village’s only school, a modest building with no windows and an ugly roof made of sundried mud brick. My objective was never clear. I mostly wandered the school’s perimeter until my commanding officer told me it was time to go, at which point I would go back to the barracks and think about nothing in particular.
One day—my day off—I was asked to cover the shift of another officer who had taken ill. I knew this was a lie as I remember that officer coming back to the barracks well after midnight, piss drunk, complaining about the Redskins’ offensive line. But since the drunk officer outranked me I had no choice but to accept. That was always pretty rotten when you had to patrol on your day off.
I got to the school at half past seven in the morning. Classes were already underway and I could hear the children participating in morning prayer. It was stiflingly hot and I was already feeling lightheaded. I’m not sure how much time had passed before I felt a little girl tugging at my fatigues. I turned around and, through a rusty chain-link fence, saw a girl—no more than nine-years old—dressed in a dull purple Abaya and a pair of dilapidated beige sandals. She had big brown eyes full of inexplicable wisdom and a nose no bigger than a button. She was looking at me thoughtfully, without the slightest trace of skepticism. I’m sure I had a glum sort of look on my face—as I said, it was awfully hot that morning. When she saw my expression, she pulled her fingers back through the fence and placed her hands behind her back. Her posture was impeccable, almost daunting, and I remember it made me feel intimidated.
Behind her, a handful of Iraqi children were playing soccer—or football, as they called it—and a handful more were acting as spectators, cheering on whichever team they felt compelled to cheer on—as it usually goes. Since it was, after all elementary school, I’m sure a fair amount of politics was involved. But the girl staring at me on the other side of the fence didn’t seem at all interested in who was playing, let alone who would win.
She pointed at the patch on my left shoulder and said, “You are American?” She spoke with a wonderfully delicate Arabic accent, using her English words carefully, but confidently.
“Yes,” I said, pointing at the U.S. flag sewn into my fatigues. “I’m American.”
“I see that flag often,” she said.
“Yes. It’s everywhere,” she said. “They even put one in our school.”
“You speak very good English,” I said.
“I speak English very well,” she said, though I wasn’t sure why.
“Do you like the flag?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Do you like the Iraqi flag?”
I thought about it for a long time before I said, “You know, I’m not quite sure what an Iraqi flag looks like.” After I said it I thought the girl might appear angry or mildly miffed, but she just stared at me with all the placidity in the world and said, “We have one of those in our school, too.”
“Do you like the Iraqi flag?”
Across the school yard I saw the girl’s teacher staring at me distrustfully. She was very tall, but slight, almost frail, and had these angry eyes that I was convinced could cut through the sharpest of people.
“Is that your teacher?” I asked the girl.
“Yes,” she said, without turning around.
“Do you like her?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” said the girl.
I smiled and felt the muscles in my face twinge—as if I hadn’t smiled in years. “Well,” I said, “I guess since you came up to me and I wasn’t sure what else to do.”
The girl looked surprised. In fact, she almost laughed. “Oh no,” she said. “I didn’t mean—It’s just that—Well, I ask a lot of questions, too. My teacher says that’s because I’m cur...curmous...curmously?”
“Curious?” I said.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “That’s it! Curious. Are you curious, too?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been really curious about anything.”
“Oh...” The girl sighed, looking slightly disappointed. “That’s okay. Not everyone has to be...curious.”
On the field, a boy of about 11 scored a goal and those on his team surrounded him in a celebratory circle shouting the Arabic word for goal. I could have told you what the word was at the time, but today I just can’t seem to remember it. Though, I do recall it sounding very nice.
“You don’t like soccer?” I asked.
The girl looked puzzled. “Soccer?”
I smiled again, feeling those muscles spring to life. “Sorry. Football.”
“Oh, soccer.” She said the word very mindfully, as if absorbing it entirely. “I do, normally. But the ball the school plays with is very worn, and very flat.” She shuddered. “And very dirty.”
“You only have one ball?”
“Yes,” she said gloomily. “But the others don’t seem to mind. It’s just so flat it’s like they’re kicking around a sack of broken rice. It’s really very sad.”
“Why won’t the school get you a new one?” I asked.
This time the girl looked exceptionally puzzled, as if I’d grunted my words rather than spoke them. “I...” she stammered. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Can’t you ask your teacher for a new ball?”
“No,” she said flatly. “Is that what you can do in America?” She asked this question expectantly, her words full of hope and desire.
I shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Wow!” she said. “That’s really something. I bet I’d like America.”
The girl’s teacher dispatched a boy of about six to come and check on us. After the teacher had given him his instructions, the boy dropped his shoulders and sauntered over, acting as if this were the last thing in the world he’d ever want to do.
“Somebody’s coming to see you,” I said, motioning to the six-year old.
She gave the boy a quick, dismissive glance. “Oh,” she practically scoffed, “that’s Nassir. He’s so...” Again, she searched for the word.
“Nice?” I said.
“No,” she said, frustrated. “The opposite.”
“Annoying?” I said.
“Yes!” she proclaimed. “He’s so annoying. He does whatever the teacher tells him to do, even though I think he doesn’t like it.”
“In America we call that being ‘a teacher’s pet,’” I said.
She smiled. “A teacher’s pet? I like that.”
Nassir approached us, scowling and looking particularly miserable. “Mrs. Hamir says you have to come and play with the others,” he told the girl.
“I don’t want to,” she said.
He looked absolutely dumbfounded. His lip trembled. “But...” he said quietly, and then repeated, “she said you have to.”
“You speak very good English, too,” I said to Nassir.
He looked at me, unimpressed. “I speak English very well,” he said, just like the girl. Though, again, I wasn’t sure why.
“Well, then you speak English very well,” I said anyway.
“They make us,” was all he said, and walked away.
“He’s going to tell Mrs. Hamir I didn’t listen to him,” the girl said.
“I hope you don’t get in trouble because of me.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “They don’t like when we...” She paused, stuck out her tongue at a crooked angle, and searched for that elusive word. “Fran...Frat...Fraternity?”
“Fraternizing?” I said.
“That’s it! They don’t like us ‘fraternizing with the soldiers.’” She spoke as if she had been taught that phrase, but didn’t entirely understand it.
She shrugged. “Who knows?”
The same boy who had scored the first goal scored a second goal and, again, his classmates mobbed him with adoration. When his mob of fans subsided, I saw the boy look over at me. He didn’t have the same quizzical look Nassir and his teacher had. In fact, he seemed to be smiling. He was wearing a white t-shirt, which was far too big for him, with a black and white photograph of Pele on the front. The boy pumped his fist and ran back to his side of the field.
“He’s very good,” I said to the girl.
“That’s Akram,” she said. “He loves football. If it were up to him he’d live in that t-shirt, but the people don’t like it too much—they’d rather he wore his Thawb—so they only let him wear the t-shirt when we play outside.”
The balls deterioration was evident even across the yard. Most of the black pentagons had faded to a faint grey and, indeed, the ball was half-deflated giving it the appearance of an oblong pancake rather than a perfect sphere.
“Would you like a new soccer ball?” I asked the girl.
“I don’t think that’s—you don’t have to,” she said. “Mrs. Hamir said we should be thankful for what we have.”
“But what if I could get you one, would you like that?”
She shrugged. “I suppose I would. Maybe then I would play.”
“Maybe then you could show Akram a thing or two.”
The girl shrugged again. “Maybe. Though I’m really not very good. At least, not as good as him.”
“Well, maybe with the new ball it’ll be a different story.”
“Maybe,” she said again.
Mrs. Hamir blew the small, metallic whistle around her neck and several of the school children groaned. She shouted something in Arabic and the children systematically began to line up.
“I should go,” said the girl, starting back for the school.
“What’s your name?” I called after her.
“Shada,” the girl said, turning back momentarily. “What’s yours?”
I told her my name and the girl named Shada went back inside.
I went back to the barracks without an inkling of animosity toward the hungover officer I was asked to cover. Speaking with Shada was the most productive conversation I had had since arriving in Baghdad. Her free, liberal eyes beamed in a way that made me think the world turned just for her. And I was foolish enough, even in that instant, to believe it.
The first thing I did when I got back—even before I stowed my rifle and hung up my gear—was ask my commanding officer if there were any extra soccer balls on base.
“What’ya want those for?” he grunted.
“There’s this school, sir,” I said. “And they only have one soccer ball. And it’s in real rough shape.”
“So I thought I could give them one.”
“No,” he said.
“We need ‘em here,” he said, scowling.
“I just thought, sir, if we had extra we could—“
He removed a Nicaraguan cigar from his breast pocket and bit off the end. “We need ‘em here,” he said again, then spit the torn cigar end in the sand.
“How many do we have, sir?”
“As many as we need.” He lit the cigar and took a short, hollow drag. “Boys are gonna need ‘em. And the boys get what the boys want. Anything else?”
I shook my head and he headed off, chewing audibly on the end of his $18 Nicaraguan cigar.
Later that night I snuck into the recreational bunk—the tent where things like board games, cards, footballs, basketballs, and, yes, soccer balls were stored. I stuffed the most pristine soccer ball I could find into my saddle pack and—honest to God—actually tiptoed back to my bunk. I couldn’t wait to see Shada’s big brown eyes light up when I handed her that ball.
The next morning I got up extra early and slipped out before my commanding officer could assign me elsewhere. I signed out with PFC George Warby at the front gate and he didn’t seem to notice the sphere-shaped bulge in my sack. I got to the school just in time to hear the students’ morning prayer end and Mrs. Hamir start the first lesson. I had no idea how long that lesson would be until their recess, and knew the minutes would drag by in a seemingly endless succession.
Six layers of perspiration had soaked through my undershirt before the back doors to the schoolhouse opened and the students poured into the quad. I was stricken with an overwhelming sense of anxiety when, at first, I didn’t see Shada. I saw Akram (still wearing his Pele t-shirt) and Nassir, and even saw Mrs. Hamir, but the schoolyard was void of Shada.
I shoved the soccer ball further down in my pack and turned back to the barren street, preparing to look for things I had no idea what to look for. I did a lot of that in the Army.
I heard two or three goals (all of which, I assumed, were scored by Akram) before I felt a tugging at the back of my fatigues. My heart swelled with hope and I spun around and saw Shada, dressed in a tattered maroon Abaya, smiling up at me.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello there,” I said, my glee barely containable.
“I am,” I said. “I brought you something.” I reached into my pack and extracted the magnificent soccer ball. In the early morning sun I swear the thing practically glowed.
At first, Shada looked at the ball sardonically, as if she wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe she hadn’t seen a ball in such good shape before. Maybe. But then she said, “You have a football.”
“I brought it for you,” I said.
She looked from me to the ball and back to me again. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, this is a gift I brought for you. For all of your friends, actually.”
“Oh...” she said. “I’m not sure Mrs. Hamir—“
“Don’t worry about her,” I said. “Isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure her students are happy?”
“So if this soccer—I mean, football makes you guys happy, wouldn’t she be happy?”
“I suppose,” she said again.
“Very good! Then I’ll throw it over.”
In full view of Mrs. Hamir, I tossed the ball over the chain-link fence and it landed right in Shada’s arms. Mrs. Hamir gave no indication my gift made her nervous or displeased, but that still didn’t remove the almost-permanent scowl embedded on her pale, gaunt face.
“Thank you,” Shada said. “This will make everyone so happy.”
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Very much so,” she said, and ran immediately to Akram.
Akram was the first to wave his appreciation, and many of the other students followed in suit—even though none of them knew who I was (or, at least, why in the holy hell a soldier would ever bring them a brand new soccer ball). One of the students, a boy with a thick build and vaguely amphibian-looking features, picked up their old deflated soccer ball and set it carefully in an equipment bag near Mrs Hamir—who was still giving no indication as to whether she was satisfied or furious. Akram kicked off and I watched the students play until Mrs. Hamir blew the whistle and they were summoned inside for the rest of the morning.
Elation is a funny sort of thing. It can consume you almost to a debilitating degree. You feel formidable, invincible, full of charisma. You are not defined by your elation; you are powered by it. You do not walk on air, for air feels nothing but gratitude to be beneath your awesome feet. The sounds of the world are sharper, the sights clearer, the smells—all sweet and grand—are tangible. Elation moves you to degrees you never thought possible, for you are capable of the grandest achievements, even ones you never, in your wildest dreams, anticipated.
And then, like all moments of elation, it is stripped from your soul, as if by some hapless thief, before it is cast away like some cheap, shapeless stone.
As I headed back to the barracks—the afternoon sun beating down on my chapped lips and rose-colored face—I practically skipped. Figuring it to be quite odd for a soldier in uniform to be skipping, I settled for a quick trot to make it look as if I were exercising. I hadn’t made it more than three blocks from the school before I felt the ground beneath me shake and the buildings around me rattle. Dust from the apartment complex above me settled onto my hands and helmet and a quick tremor made my knees buckle.
I looked in the direction of the school and saw plumes of smoke leaping across the buildings in the foreground. Another quick tremor ran through the streets and I nearly fell over.
There was a vacant stillness in the air before the screams came. The screams were of no distinction; men were screaming, women were screaming, children were screaming, they all blended together in one horrific sonata.
And then I began to run—as fast as my jelly legs would carry me—toward the screams. After the first block, I bumped into a man with a grey beard who was walking aimlessly through the cloud of thick dust forming in the streets. After another block, I collided with a woman, in her mid 20s. She had a long laceration across her forehead. Another woman was helping her, but they both were walking blinding in the cloud of dust that had transformed into a dense fog of prickly sand. Cries of immense agony echoed off the village’s mud walls and I was paralyzed by my own disorientation.
Finally, I came across a small Toyota, torn apart, starting from the trunk—no doubt a car bomb. The metal was jutting out at all angles, the paint stripped away and replaced with a heavy black blanket of ash. Fire crackled in both the front and back seats and putrid smell of burning rubber kidnapped my nostrils.
Beyond the car I saw the school, now in ruins. The windowless building was now a heaping pile of rubble and the mud roof was nothing more than broken pebbles. Even the chain-link fence had been blown over, now a twisted piece of aluminum resting in the place the kids once played socc—football.
I ran around to the other end of the school, where part of the building was still standing, and made my way through a narrow opening I found near the building’s corner. I had to crawl at first, but after a few feet I was able to stand. I saw books strewn about, covered in dust, followed by desks that had toppled over in the blast.
I turned a corner and saw the legs of a body sticking out from under a desk—the teacher’s desk. I pulled at the legs and realized they had been separated from the body and the torso was on the other side of the room. I crawled to the torso and saw it was Mrs. Hamir, the rusty, cut-rate whistle still around her neck.
I crawled a few more feet and found another body, this one Nassir’s. His eyes were still open, but covered in a thin layer of soot which made him look almost peaceful. Next to him was the student I recognized with the thick build and amphibian-like features. His eyes were closed and neither peace nor terror seemed to have found him.
I crawled over several more bodies and vomited.
I finally felt the touch of fabric in my palm. I looked down and saw a decapitated body on its back. The fabric I touched was so badly shredded, it had practically been reduced to a rag. But I did notice the black and white print of Pele on the front, and knew the headless body near the school’s only bookcase belonged to Akram.
I waded through a sea of severed hands and shrapnel-riddled feet before I came to the body I dreaded most. Shada lie in the middle of the room, all of her limbs intact. At first glance it didn’t appear as though she’d suffered a single scratch, and for a fleeting moment I thought she might be alive. But as I sidled up alongside her, I noticed her heart was still and her chest no longer rose. One of her hands rested on her belly and the other was on the ground. The soccer ball was only feet away—still in pristine condition—unmolested by the car’s devastating blast.
Even though I’ve avoided my wife all morning, I know she wants to go to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner. I know this because she wrote it on the whiteboard we keep in the kitchen, and also texted me several times something to that effect.
I don’t respond to her texts and can hear her walking around upstairs. I wonder how long it’ll be before she comes down and asks if I’ve looked at my phone.
I finish the last of the gin in the flask.
I don’t particularly like Cheesecake Factory, although their Baja Chicken Tacos with chipotle rice and beans is pretty good. My wife usually gets the Herb Crusted Filet of Salmon with asparagus and mashed potatoes—which is also pretty good, but I’ve only ever had a bite or two.
Even though I don’t plan on responding to her texts, I know we’ll end up going.
I’ve been sitting in my basement for the last six hours playing FIFA and nursing the 20 Chicken McNuggets I picked up at lunch. I’ve lost three straight times now but refuse to play with anyone other than Real Madrid—I just like how that Cristiano Ronaldo plays, I guess. He’s a very good player. I wonder how long he had to train to become that good. Probably pretty long. His skills are very tangible.......
Upstairs I hear the mail slot in our front door clink and know the postman has dropped off our letters. While nothing in those deliverables will interest me, I know it’s only a matter of time until that stranger upstairs will meet me in the kitchen and start reading me the mail.
I hear the stranger walk across the new Bellawood floors we just put in and scoop up the letters before she heads back to kitchen.
I get another text but don’t look at my phone.
I decide to play another game—this time against Barcelona—but quit when they score a goal twenty seconds in. I eat the last Chicken McNugget with some difficulty and turn off the Xbox. Before going upstairs I stand in the calm of my basement, listening only to the sounds of the tearing envelopes and the stranger’s sighs. Above our Kingsman fireplace I notice the stranger has hung up the plaque I got at the V.A. I have no idea how long it’s been there. I think about taking it down but decide it’s too much work and go upstairs to listen to the mail.