Cliche – chapter two

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-room“There he is!” his mother shrieked. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Look at him—Paul! Paul!”

He was twenty-fourth. His mother had counted. They marched through the door from the quiet transport into a screaming mess, cameras and lights, frantic wives and husbands and kids. The chaos hit him like a shockwave. Paul abstracted out the irrelevant faces in the crowd as he had learned to, looking for anomalies, tells that said he was going to die. The anomalies in the Midwest airport were friendlies, his mother, his brother Buddy, his girlfriend Terri, the rest just faces floating in the glare of lights that followed the booms and cameras in a fierce hunger for the right kind of crying, a smile of relief breaking through visible tears.

Then Terri was in his arms weeping and his mother behind her and Buddy waiting until they had finished. His mother was screaming something but it didn’t matter what. The cameras turned and the bright lights and a falsely perky plastic bimbo thrust a handheld mic in his face.

“Tell us how it feels to be home, soldier!” she said with a Barbie smile. Except her hair was brunette, sprayed on top of her make-up. The microphone poked him like a prod and he knocked it away.

“I just got off the plane,” he said. “I don’t know how it feels.”

“It’s great to see everyone waiting isn’t it,” she said without a question mark. He stared at her set smile. She blinked, made a decision, and turned to a black guy. “Hello soldier!” she shouted and the big guy gave her the smile and nod that she wanted. “Tell us how it feels—“

Terri was still crying, climbing the front of his body as if he were a tree. As if she wanted to find a hole and get inside. His mother was hugging both of them and weeping with what she would later say was happiness that he was back, he was back in one piece, but it sounded like screeching in a horror movie to Paul. As if the girl going down the cellar stairs alone saw the slasher in the shadows.

Buddy waited for them to finish and took his older brother’s hand and gave it a shake.

“Hey, Paul,” he said with a smile.

“Hey, Buddy,” Paul said back.

The lights were a swarm of bees humming in search of a place to nest. Families and friends swarmed in a chaotic swirl, noisy and cloying. Other passengers tried to get past them to get to their flights. The hallways were smeared with wet footprints from snow outside and dirt on their boots. It was hot and dry in the airport like the desert. He wanted a drink. He wished he had his sunglasses handy. Terri gripped his arm so hard it was starting to hurt. His mother was pressing her face into her hands and waddling beside him, his brother walking behind by a step or two, the only one of the bunch that he didn’t want to hit.

The duffel bags came slowly around the carousel and the milling crowds crumpled around the bags, stumbling along the conveyor belt to pull them off. Families and friendlies … felt … strange, was how Paul said it, later, talking to the doc. It was standard to check in at the VA, and he did. It was strange to be somewhere he didn’t have to examine every second the surrounding crowd for a too-thick coat, a face out of phase, some inadvertent movement.

“To be expected,” the doctor said. “Yes?”

Paul shrugged. “I guess.”

The doctor waited.

“And your mother?”

“What about my mother?”

“You were starting to say–?”

He shifted in the chair. Anxiety prickled his eyes and fretted his chest. His chest felt hollow for a moment, waiting for something to fill it. He tried to fill it with his voice.

“She keeps crying. She keeps holding on, and crying.”

“Also to be expected. Yes?”

“It makes me want to hit her. Just shut her the hell up.”

“Also to be expected. Did you?”

“What, hit her? No.”

“Will you?”

Paul rearranged himself. “Who the hell knows what they might do? Do you? Do you think you know what you’re going to do next?”

Doctor van der Haag controlled his emotions, a little too much, Paul thought. “Yes, Paul, I do.”

“Then you’re as much of a liar as they are. You never been there. Have you?”

The doctor’s look was angled away. “I haven’t been in combat, no.”

“I’m not talking about combat, ” Paul said. “Jesus fucking Christ. I’m talking about that room.”

“Ah,” the doctor sat back, folding his hands out of sight in his lap. He smiled across the desk as if a door had opened and someone he liked was waiting inside. “Tell me about the room.”

Terri was in his bedroom naked under the sheets. The cold winter twilight was blue on the drawn shade. The smell of too much food cooking in the kitchen filled the little bungalow. It made him gag.

“Come here,” she said, trying to be sexy. She let the sheet down exposing her breast. Paul knew he was supposed to be excited. He sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on her thigh.

“Later,” he said. “After the rest of them go to sleep.”

She tried not to be disappointed but Terri was never much good at deception. She would have lasted about ten minutes, over there.

“I just want to make you feel good, honey.”

Paul moved his hand on her leg. He made a smile. “I know. I know you do.”

He felt as if he were talking to her through a window. He could feel her there, somewhere, under the tented sheet. But he couldn’t be sure it was Terri yet, not by the simple feel of a leg.

She was further away than she ought to have been, judging by the distance to her face, her breast, the angle of her knee,

“I do want to fuck you, honey,” he said, making himself sort of feel his words.

She reached over and let her hand come to rest on his crotch. She felt it stir a little and massaged it lightly, giving him her best smile.

“I am just so glad you’re back,” she said.

He looked at her, waiting for more.

She didn’t intend to say it but did. “Aren’t you?”

“Of course,” he said. “Sure I am.”

Her hand stopped pressing. She rested it there, letting him feel the pressure, and she felt him against the back of her hand. She could not make out his expression in the dim room. It was like he wasn’t moving a muscle or anything inside. Like he was still coming back.

“Hey!” Buddy shouted, knocking on the door. “Dinner’s ready. You two want to come out?”

“Sure,” Paul called. Terri let him stand up and leave the room before she threw the sheet back, dressed in a hurry, and stopped crying long enough to make up a face.

Dinner was predictable. The script had been written. Paul had seen Born on the Fourth on July and The Deer Hunter and Platoon. He saw Jarhead and Three Kings and Full Metal Jacket. He made himself sit through Apocalypse Now. Back in school, they made him read Big Two-hearted River, both parts. So he knew the story. He just couldn’t get his mind around how they kept doing it. Over and over again.

So he made an effort not to think about things he couldn’t understand. He was not going to let himself be one of the stereotypical crazy guys who came back and acted nuts. He knew the routine and refused to play the game.

He sat through dinner and later that night, when his mother finally went to bed, he fucked Terri spasmodically in the chilly bedroom where he had been a kid. It felt weird, doing it in there, after he had gotten his own place before he left. He needed to get his own place again, more than ever. Terri said he could come in with her and her roommates and he said thanks a lot. No, he needed a place of his own, somewhere to be quiet and get away from all the commotion.

“What commotion?” Terri asked.

“The noise,” he told her. “It’s like always pins and needles in the background now, waiting for something to happen.”

“I remember your Uncle Galvin saying after World War II how they took him out to Kettle Moraine thinking he would enjoy the woods and every time a twig snapped he fell to the ground.”

“Yeah, well it’s something like that, but not exactly.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

She was sitting on the bed putting cream on her feet, one leg crossed. He watched her rub it in and looked out the window at the Greubers’ rusted air conditioner still in the upper window.

“It’s waiting,” he said at last. “Waiting for something to trigger. It’s hard to explain.”

She crossed over the other leg and worked the cream between her toes. “Trigger what?”

He inhaled the scent of the lotion and remembered putting wads of cotton into his nose. He was barely able to inhale through the heavy perfume.

The first time he went into the room, four oh four was in the corner, a young naked guy, soaked and cold. It was really cold in there and the air conditioner blasted. The kid was holding himself and shivering. Everyone else wore coats. Paul went over and saw his teeth chattering, maybe he heard them or maybe he made it up. He thought he remembered the uncontrollable staccato. There were cuts and bruises on his body and his arms and legs. Someone had worked him with a razor blade. His eyes looked like animals’ eyes. Then Paul heard a sound like a bug zapper hissing and that set the kid to screaming. He screamed and screamed as Johnny came around with the rod in his hand and thrust it toward him. Johnny and Carl and Frankie laughed as the kid tried to shrink into the corner, disappear into the wet floor. Johnny poked the cold prod into his shoulder, making him wail like a baby.

Perry Mirsky said something in his language and the guy stared up at him, shaking, shaking his head. Mirsky said something else. The kid replied. Then Mirsky again. Then the kid. He jabbered for a long time, anything to keep it away. But Mirsky had the last word.

“Zap him,” he said.

Johnny hit him with the live prod. The kid shrieked and he held it there, the odor of burning flesh fighting with the sweet chemical reek in his nose. Then the kid was shitting all over himself, a greenish liquid ooze. The odors mingled, forever.

“I don’t like the smell of that cream, whatever it is.”

She finished rubbing it into the arch. “You like it when my soft feet are on your chest when you get up like that.”

He watched her finish then pull on high blue socks.

“I don’t like the smell of that cream,” he repeated.

She pushed her feet into loafers and stood up. “Then I better wash my hands,” she said, and she did.

Leaving Paul in the hallway waiting because he didn’t know at the moment where to go, what else he might do, where to turn. He stood there waiting while she ran the water and then it stopped. She opened the door and almost walked into him, coming out.

“We’ll go to the mall and you can pick out whatever cream you like, OK?”

She looked up into his eyes and smiled.

He knew she was doing everything she could. That’s what made him a little anxious. Everybody was doing everything they could. But they lived far away on a plain so vast he could barely see or feel them or hear what they said. The distance and the wind diminished everything. The wind was the kind that never stopped. The plain was without perspective and all of the people out there looked like ants.

“OK?” she said again, coming into what would have been his arms, had they been raised.

He made himself say, “OK.”

Made himself put his arms around her, made himself hold her close.

Made himself be like a puppet, a marionette, making the right moves, saying the right things, being every bit as regular as everybody else.

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