Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
AFTER THE WAR
I returned to Palo Alto after two years of fighting in Iraq and found there was nobody in town that I knew. Both of my parents had passed away shortly after my enlistment five years ago so I had nowhere to call home. Fortunately, my disability payments allowed me to rent a room from the manager of the Creekside Trailer Lodge in East Palo Alto along West Bayshore Road, which was about 15 minutes from the Veterans Hospital. I didn't feel like working, so I spent my days in bed staring at the ceiling and occasionally watching the news on the little television set in the corner of my room. I didn't want to go out, so I paid my landlady to do my shopping and to fix my meals. She was a thin, haggard Mexican woman who had lost her son in Fallujah and she often lingered in my room after bringing me my food. I had stopped shaving since my release from the service, and I just wanted to rest and sleep. I spent long hours lying in bed as I played catch with a tennis ball that I tried to throw as close to the ceiling as possible, without touching it. My landlady would come over to the bed after bringing me my meal and ask me "Are you sure you never met my son? You said you fought at Fallujah." I would simply turn my back to her and stare out the window and tell her "No, I didn't know him. He wasn't in my unit."
My landlady was a very nice lady, and she continued to ask me about her son whenever I walked into the kitchen to get something to drink. I spent the entire day staring at the ceiling and trying to forget the war, but that was all she wanted to talk about. She would point to his picture sitting on the mantelpiece in the living room whenever I passed by, and ask me if I knew him. "They took that picture at Fort Benning, in Georgia before he went to Iraq," she said. It was a standard service portrait of a soldier in his Army Class A green uniform with a picture of the flag behind him. I had never had one taken, but they were very popular with new recruits who bought them on base at the photo studio in the military shopping mall. He had close cut black hair, and was laughing as they took the portrait. On his uniform you could see the expert rifleman's badge and the Good Conduct ribbon across from his nametag. "He was an 11B, an infantryman" his mother said, standing behind me as I looked at his picture once again. "Are you sure you never met him?" She would then bring out her photo box from the cabinet and show me pictures of her son from grade school through high school.
My landlady showed me the picture of her son in front of the bus often, and each time I would think of many things: the girl, the Bol Park donkeys, the bronze eagle, and the girl again. "Do you remember him?" my landlady would inquire, and each time, I would shake my head and say, "Nope, I never met him." Then she would put all the photos back into their separate white letter envelopes, wrap a rubber band around them and place them in the photo box.
I spent a lot of time in my room healing my mind and body. The tranquility of the house and the seductive luxury of whiling away the day by doing nothing helped me forget the stark fear I felt in the desert. The war became a blur. I had worked brutal 18 hour days in the heat, seven days a week without end. When I was in Iraq, I dreamed of the States every day, and now that I was back, I dreamt of Iraq every night. There were no cool languid nights over there, reading a book by camplight, listening to music or the gentle chatter of citizens relaxing along the riverbanks. Just the stark terror of midnight runs along desert highways and a daily feeling of mortality. Suddenly, here at home, I had to protect myself from the stifling normalcy of life in Silicon Valley, after spending two years in urban combat.
I stayed in my room because I was afraid of what I might do, if I happened to pass by a coffee shop filled with Palo Altans, lazily drinking their caffeine confections as they peered intently at their laptop computers while images of suicide car bombers played on the television screens above them. I just shook my head in wonder at the disparity of sacrifice in our country. America was not at war. America was at the mall. As my commander in Iraq constantly told us, "In Iraq you must embrace the suck." At night as I lay in my bed, I would hear the other tenants coming back from work entering their mobile homes. I could hear the girl next door or the Honduran who I shared the bathroom with, as he knocked about his room before going to bed.
I had been back for about a month and had handled the picture of the landlady's son for the hundredth time, when I suddenly noticed with a start, that there was someone in the bus that he was standing in front of. Upon closer study, I saw a pretty girl sitting in the front seat of the bus looking out. It was the dark haired girl who worked in the hospital gift shop. My landlady was peering attentively at me, and exclaimed with a satisfied smile, "So you do recognize him after all." The smell of tortilla soup wafted in the room as she fanned herself with her apron. "No, I said slowly, but I know her".
It was quiet in the small house that was surrounded by mobile homes, and after a while she said "He married her. Perhaps it's for the best that he never came back." I asked her why she said that, but she simply walked towards the window and stared outside for what seemed to be a very long time. "How do you know her?" she asked me. I stared at the picture in my hand, and told her about Therapeutic Recreation, the rehabilitation center, and the girl with sad eyes that worked in the Gift Shop at my hospital. "Is that it?" she asked me, before turning to the kitchen to work the chicken broth into the masa for the tamales she was making. "Yes" I replied as I watched her work, absorbing the smells of the meal to come.
"You'll see why when you meet her here", she said. "She was pregnant when we got the news about my son, and she lost the baby shortly afterward".
"Meet her here?" I repeated with a puzzled frown across my face. The corn shucks, masa and meat were all rolled and ready to steam when she turned and gently touched my arm. "Her name is Juli. She lives in the trailer next to us. Are you certain you haven't seen her here?"
"No, I've never met her. What's wrong with her?" I asked.
"It's not something I like to talk about, but you'll see soon enough. The shock was too much for her. She could not handle the painful memories. I do not know if it was the loss of my son, the baby or both. "
The moon was still up when I heard the sound of Juli's door, but it was sinking fast, by the time I stood in front of it, listening to her move around the trailer. It was lost to sight behind the mountains that warm Palo Alto, as I stood and thought of Iraq and the past and became aware of the sound of the highway and the smell of hot oil and fried food that came from the East. I remembered my departed friends and held their cold hands and talked to them as if they were still alive, and I told them what they had done would not be forgotten as long as I lived. I told them they could sleep quietly, for they had earned their rest and that I was going to help build a new world, full of laughter and courage. When the door opened and I saw Juli's face, it was more beautiful than ever and her eyes were free and unclouded. And I could not see our parting to meet again.