Young men are foolish.
This is the reason for much of the world's domestic violence, about half of its wars and nearly all its venereal disease. It is also the reason for much of its great romantic poetry, a tremendous amount of its art and music and at least one great opera. The foolishness of young men is both the tender shoot and the dung it grows from.
I was no less foolish than any other young man.
For one, I thought I was immortal. Or, at least, I thought I was too smart and too tough to kill easily, not really understanding that high explosive and high-velocity metal had no way of detecting intelligence and toughness. This meant that they would, as Bill Mauldin said of artillery shells, "kill the smart soldier hiding in his foxhole as quickly as the dumb one standing on top of a knoll". Which explained why at the rollicking age of 27 I was sitting with a dozen other paratroopers in a dingy and rather worn deuce-and-a-half rattling down the MSR towards South Base Camp.The Sinai burned around us; the arid mountains to the right marking the edge of the central massif, the coastal strip curving asymptotically before and behind us down to the blinding glitter of the Gulf of Sinai. Dusty black, the asphalt terminator of the coast highroad divided land from sea, deserted save for our convoy and the occasional frightening Egyptian bus. These, rocketing past in their frantic haste to leave the vast nothing behind them and get to the nowhere up the road ahead, looked like the restless rolling dead of rural Alabama coach routes, battered fenders and paint scars testimony to past victories in Egyptian traffic.
We had come 5,000 miles to this place, involuntary tourists in one of the great wastelands of human history, to show the flag and maintain the peace between Egypt and Israel, a peace that both sides publicly tolerated while secretly loathed and embraced. We were ambassadors for the United States, a visible commitment to World Peace - our opinions on thin thighs were not solicited. We were hostages, of a sort, expected to die in place rather than tolerate trucebreaking. We were "soldiers for peace", the Salvation Army but with a more lethal range of persuasion.We reacted to this with the respectful discipline that American footsoldiers have always been known for; that is to say we mocked the land and its people, speculated endlessly on the chance of acquiring intoxicating spirits, the merits of various popular musics, and the carnal versatility of the female of our species actual, hypothetical, and fantastical.
We passed through the land where the Pharaohs and the Israelites passed, where history was made, where madmen and visionaries and millions of common men just like us had come and gone. And we made crude jokes about the black-robed Bedu women and spat sunflower seeds out into the desert.
For another, I was in love.
Actually, I was in the midst of love, congeries. I was actually in...ummm..."loves". I felt blessed, despite my recent geographic celibacy, with a largesse of girlfriends, an embarras de richesses of inamoratas, an absolute harem of sweethearts. Not to mention the sultanesque prospects of concupiscent rapture! We were talking a sheriff's posse of poontang, a smack-down, pure-D torrent of tail, a plethora of the sweet poozle.
I had three girlfriends. Three young women who professed to each delight in me, were complete strangers to each other, and were so distant geographically that the possibility of my getting busted was mathematically incalculable.
I was a happy Specialist Fourth Class sitting that long ride back to South Camp.
Along with the usual dissipations of sunbathing, hot chow (or as hot as was tolerable in the alkaline sauna that was the edge of the Gulf), sunbathing, endless games of hearts and dominoes, scuba diving along the coral strand, sunbathing and working out there were the closest thing to home we had: the MARS radio-satellite telephones that allowed you to call back to the States.
During the returns to South Camp between periods "in sector" this normally meant a pleasant afternoon exchanging romantic nothings seriatim with my trio of houris. Given that I had little to say other than unobservant observations on the general desert-y quality of the desert and the peculiarities of my squaddies, and they had little more than the inanities of badly-educated, self-absorbed young American adults, the three conversations total contained about enough mental and emotional content of what I would come to realize later was one genuinely adult conversation. But they were all I had at the time, and I felt smug about them.
You see, I had been an awkward, socially inept child and adolescent, and my experience with women was still limited to an overmastering interest in them as possessors of genitalia designed to accommodate my own and the beginnings of a vague sort of appreciation for women as individuals, many of whose tastes and temperaments seemed delightfully different, and as a gender whose form and features seemed designed to please the male mind and eye. The notion that one woman, let alone three, would express a willingness to spend time in my company was an unaccustomed delight. I hugged my little trio of girlfriends to my ego like a little drake with his first ducks. I felt like Casanova, like Don Juan, like Mark Sanford would one day feel "hiking the Appalachian Trail" all the way to Buenos Aires...I felt fiendishly naughty.
This salacious anticipation lasted until we cleared the front gate and rolled up through the cheap metal buildings to the mobile homes that were our company area. There I climbed down and slapped the dust off my "chocolate-chip" uniform, slung my ruck into the sterile rectangle that served as my billet, showered and mooched up to the HQ Company orderly room to check my mail.
The first sign that something was wrong was no letters from Kissy.
Kissy was the Japanese-American girl I had been dating off and on since college, a plumptiously curvaceous nineteen-year-old with a helium giggle and the sultriest sloe eyes I had ever lost myself in. Of the three I was perhaps the fondest of her, because she seemed like the most genuinely loving and kind of the three, because she was built along the lines of an Asian Dolly Parton, and because her mom made the best shrimp-and-vegetable tempura this side of the Ginza.
Beauty won't 'elp when your rations is cold, mate.
She was the longest-running of my then-girlfriends, and she was also a manic letter-writer, filling pages of awful high-school-writing-class glurge that seemed to flow from her in a completely unfiltered fashion. In the Sinai I had received letters from her that kept me entertained for days simply jiggling the puzzle-box of her mind trying to figure out how french fries, sheet music, her period, kissing, her brother's skateboard and step-dancing related to one another.
But there were no letters.
(I didn't know it but this was the beginning of the longest "off" period of out off-and-on dating. She simply drifted off without animus but without any real explanation. We would reunite briefly a year later and then part for good without ever really understanding each other. She eventually did pop up in perhaps the single most peculiar incident in my entire life; literally running into my bride-of-one-day at a restaurant on our way to Europe for our honeymoon. We exchanged rather stunned greetings, I introduced my wife, and she said all the right, conventional things. But after my parents and bride had gone on ahead, she stopped me and asked, apparently seriously, why we had never gotten married. Because, I reminded her, she had never even evidenced any interest in having carnal knowledge of me, let alone marriage. That was because I was waiting for you to MAKE me sleep with you, she said conversationally, eyeing me with the fizzing coolness that had always been her way, and her charm. For a moment - just a moment - I felt the regret that I had missed her signal. But then I shook myself angrily.
That's called rape, darlin', I said to her, and people go to jail for it, and I passed her on after my family and never saw her again.)
But I think I knew, standing there in the noisy sunlight outside the orderly room, that my trio was now a duet.
Time to call Lizbeth.
The most recent and most passionate of my beloveds, Lizbeth was a local girl out of Carolina. We had met when she had come to Fayetteville with her friend, my friend Woodus' ex-wife. Minta and my pal had a professionally bizarre relationship. Woodus was a real good ol' boy. He liked drinking, he liked shooting things, and he liked fucking, in that order. Minta, a steel and kudzu Southern doll with ambition like a carbide-tipped ripping tooth, realized within moments of their marriage vows that if she didn't crave the life of a perpetually-pregnant slattern that she would have to drop Woodus and all his works like a live grenade.
She did so, but with enough remnant affection for the good ol' boy that several times a year she'd return to the piney woods of North Carolina from Atlanta or Charlotte or where ever it was she was trying to sack some corporate fortress, show up at my friend's door and within moments would have them horizontal, unclothed and indecent. This connubial gluttony would last the weekend with breaks for food, drink, and cigarettes and then she would leave. Woodus would sober up, swear never to take her back again, and the entire business would reoccur in a hundred days or so.
Lizbeth was her wingman; smaller, plainer, less...well, less everything than sleek Minta. She was a small-town girl from Dunn and enjoyed being a small-town girl from Dunn. She worked the night shift in the packaging plant there and lived in a shoddy second-floor apartment with a roommate who smoked clove cigarettes and liked stock-car racing and whose lover used to call for her by driving up to the front of the rental and throwing whatever debris was in the front seat of his car up at the windows. Since this was largely fast food rubbish the entire facade above the central door looked as if a large bird roosted on the eave above and shat ketchup, mayonnaise, french fry bits and hamburger condiments down the front wall.
Any Southerner would have pegged her in a glance: po' white trash.
But she was a bright, passionate young woman who wanted, or at least thought she wanted, to be more than a small-town girl from Dunn. We liked each other from the first, progressed to hand-holding and kissing and within two weeks I was staying over at her little rat-trap in Dunn. We ate dinners with her parents, a frightened little man and his awful wife, still holding some newlywed failure of his over him, we walked or jogged together, read, even went riding at some sort of local livery stable thing. She seemed like a good woman, and I really wanted to know her better.
Before I left for the Sinai I asked her if she would come live with me in Fayetteville. She didn't seem thrilled, and we had left it up in the air when I trudged up the boarding stairs to the charter jet to Ras Nasrani...but after about three weeks in-country I got a letter from her.
She was as poor a letter-writer as you can imagine the product of a bad Southern public school system to be. It took me a bit to decipher the message, but the gist was that she didn't want to wait - she wanted to get married. Now. Today. As soon as I came home. Whichever came first.
To say I was shocked would not be overstating the case. I was shocked. I wrote back, suggesting that I was open to the idea and that we should talk about it as soon as we could, over the phone or when I got home. Since then I had tried to call her several times when I got back in from sector but had missed her every time.
Perhaps now was a good time.
I plodded down to the battalion headquarters building through the heat I was already beginning to learn to ignore. The line for the phones wasn't long on a weekday afternoon, and I was soon seated in the spartan metal cubicle listening to the peculiar clicks, hums and buzzes that preceded the telephone connection to the United States, presumably as the electronic signal passed from antenna to satellite to antenna to undersea cable to transmitter to receiver to junction box to telephone.
But once again I didn't talk to Lizbeth. The person who answered the phone was her mother.
Not just her mother, but her mother in tears, almost hysterical, sobbing and moaning like a fundamentalist preacher getting worked up about the Day of Judgment.
I had never really known what to say to her mother, a hard-eyed slab of sagging muscle that I considered as mean as an adder and less trustworthy. I usually approached her emotionally armed and was utterly helpless to deal with the woman as a wretched mess.
My immediate thought was that something awful had happened to Lizbeth. She was a bad driver of legend, disregarding traffic rules and her own safety magnificently. But the heaving cries did not contain the words "killed" or "dead", so I settled myself in to try and untangle the emotional mess on the other end of the long, long line.
After a lot of soothing and coaxing - imagine soothing and coaxing some large, frightening beast that you are not confident won't attack you once you've got it down out of the tree it's stuck in and you get some idea of both the process and my enjoyment of it - mom's sobs subsided enough for me to start getting some sense of her.
"She...she's run off...off...with that...that..." barked Mom. I cursed silently. Well, shit, I've been dumped. Oldest story in the world. Goddam it. I wonder if it was that guy Kevin she used to see..?
"...that...that lezzie slut bitch Rondalee from her shift at work!" wailed mom from the Hell that gapes only for conservative Southern Christian women fall whose only daughters hook up with out butch lesbians.At that second I had two thoughts: one, that I had been dumped for a woman, and, two, that the woman in question was the sexiest woman in Dunn (admittedly, not a deep gene pool, but still...) and I'd have dumped Lizbeth for her, too. God, I was a fool.
After that we didn't have much to say - we never had, really - and I hung up, rather rueful rather than angry, depressed or grieving. My main concern was getting my stuff back from her place. The first hint that things would not be that easy was at the staff duty desk on the way outside.
"Damn, Doc, tough luck..." commented the staff duty runner, a guy from B Company I barely knew named Horner. "At least you know that you're still the last man in her life..."
"Unh...what?" was all I could think of to say. Apparently Lizbeth's mom's voice had been louder than I had thought. A couple of the hangers-on waiting for the phones smirked in an unpleasantly superior fashion. I stomped out in my shorts and flip-flops, a particularly unmilitary and indignified exit.
By the time I made it back to the HHC company area the news had fled before me like winged Rumor, full of tongues. Three of the loudest mouths in the medical platoon met me at the steps of the billets.
"Heard your old lady dumped you, man." said one.
"Damn, that sucks, dude." commented another.
"Well, I guess at least you can say that when ol' Doc has a woman she never wants another man..." said the first, whereupon they all shouted;
"...SHE WANTS A WOMAN!"
I slunk away to the messhall, but not before checking to see whether the Egyptian hired messboys weren't hanging out by the fly-aerodrome trash bins to taunt me with my apparent ability to turn formerly douce heterosexual women into ravenous, rug-munching lesbians.
It would not have surprised me a bit to encounter a Bedouin hawking camel rides outside the perimeter fence who would greet me with the universal tongue-between-finger-vee gesture of oral-genital contact and the falsetto crow "'Ey, Doc! You woman, she like woman, yes? No like you man, no?"
For a day I was the butt of everyone's joke. I heard the Ten Thousand Names for Cunnilingus, and was roundly and loudly applauded as the Most Throughly Dumped trooper in the battalion. I was angry, and spend a lot of time in the gym working that off, and was foolishly surprised, as young men often are, that my infamy was the merest of passing entertainments and was forgotten within a sunset, replaced by newer news and fresher gossip. The hothouse innuendo about our Headquarters Company commander and his slavering lust for the lady lawyer from the AG detachment was a particular crowd-pleaser...And I had the last of my scattered trio of girlfriends, and another two weeks in sector coming, and young men to doctor, and the empty Sinai to explore, and a slightly wiser appreciation for the vagarities of life and love. Somewhat to my surprise, my foolish life went on pretty much as foolishly as before.
And the sun went down behind the mountains to the west.