It’s been 5 months, 1 week, and 4 days since I returned from across the sea, from the small piece of hell in the desert. Now I find myself walking the cold dark streets of this city I call home. Alone, because it’s the only thing I know now. It’s been tough readjusting. One moment everyone and their brother are trying to put a bullet in my head, the next I’m back home and everyone and their brother is happy to see me home. The nights are the worst. The dreams, or nightmares, bring me back to scenes that I wish I left over there. Feeling the jolt of the rifle in my hands as I sent a bullet downrange to end a man’s life. Seeing the man topple over as your comrades congratulate on a nice shot. Holding my friend in my arms as he breaths his last, his blood soaking into my uniform, telling him…lying to him…everything is going to be all right. Hearing the sound of a RPG, feeling the blast, having the world go black around me, then waking up in a hospital in Germany. I rub my chest at that thought, reminiscing the weeks of recovery. “Damn lucky,” I think to myself.
Counseling hasn’t helped much. Trying to explain life and death situations to a man who has never been in those situations doesn’t help the problem. Even the military professionals designed to help people in similar conditions like me. I think isn’t doing much. The only friends and family I have left are my brothers-in-arms. Even they only stop by for a small amount of time. Drinking only does so much, and it doesn’t help when I’m only in my early twenties and I feel older than most of them at the bar. I’ve become a bit of a hermit in my apartment, leaving only to go to work and the bar on occasions. The walls adorned with memorabilia of the past. Movie posters, pictures of family, sketches and painting I did while overseas, most still jumbled up in a pile on or around the desk in the living room. The only picture of my military days is of myself with my good friend Paul. Dressed in our “full battle rattle”, smiling like the idiots we were back then out in the desert. A few empty bottles of beer are on the table in the kitchen or in front of the couch. I try to keep it clean, but why bother when you rarely have guests over.
Though, in the last couple of months I found something that has been working. It started with late night browsing the Internet and I stumbled on something, a corner of the Internet dedicated to show called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Strange that people other than the targeted demographic, young girls, would watch, much less love the show. Yet, I’m up on Saturday mornings, drinking my coffee to the new episode. Watching all the colorful little ponies smile, laugh, and sing is somehow heart-warming. It’s just hard to explain. Maybe the fact that it shows some good left in the world, albeit not our world, it just makes me feel better.
But tonight, I walk alone to the bar. I pull my jacket around tighter around my body on this cold night. Cars rushing by, it’s Friday night, everyone is out. Thankfully or not, my apartment is only a few blocks away from the bar. I open the door of the bar and let the warm air rush over me as I walk in. It’s a bit more crowded then I would like it to be, but today, I really don’t care. Tonight has meaning and it means I have to drink. I push through the crowd of people at the bar and flag down bartender, Bill Young is his name. He’s a bit of stereotypical bartender, balding, mid-60s, but he’s a veteran like myself, so he understands where I am coming from. He knows me better than anyone would hope to. Hell, I’m a bit of talker when I drink, but Bill doesn’t seem to mind. I think he’s just glad that I am talking about my experience with someone. He’s one of the few people I would call a good friend these days.
“What will it be tonight, son?” Bill asked, flinging a towel over his shoulder. “Would you like a water and try your luck with the ladies or a couple shots of vodka then try your luck with the ladies?’
Laughter, something I rarely do, “No ladies tonight Bill. Just a shot of vodka and a Shiner for a friend of mine.” Bill nods and goes to get my drinks, giving me a moment to look around the bar. Groups of people are laughing and having a good time. Old men are with women half their age. Men and women stumbling arm in arm out the door. I’m not sure whether to laugh or shake my head. Bill comes back and puts the drinks in front of me.
“Look,” he says. “Drinks are on me tonight.” His look grows serious, “But don’t dwell on the past too much, ok? Take care tonight, I’ll try to make sure you don’t go home with any strange women.”
“You always have my back, Bill. Thank you.” He nods and walks to take care of his next customer. I grab the drinks and walk to a booth in the back. Putting the beer on one side and the vodka on the other, I sit down behind the vodka. Staring at the beer for the longest time, I manage to formulate thoughts in my head.
“Damn it, Paul. Of all the damn luck” I think aloud. “Just a few feet difference and this would be a different conversation.” Gripping the shot glass tighter as I slam it home. Closing my eyes as I enjoy the burn as the cold liquid goes down. I stare at the beer for a short while till I grab that as well and proceeded to sip it down slowly.
I don’t even notice how fast the time flies. I check my watch, nearly one am. The bar isn’t nearly as packed as it once was three hours ago. The air is still thick with smoke and small talk. The sounds of billiards been played accents the rock music playing in the background. Turning my head to get a look of the people still here. It’s a scene of too many old men trying to relive their youth and women trying to get a free drink or two. I catch the eye of a brunette girl, who has been staring in my direction for the longest time now. By the look of her, she’s barely old enough to drink, her hair is just perfectly brown (probably dyed), her dress is two sizes too small, and her breasts appear to be bigger than her head. The only response I only I can formulate is to roll my eyes and shake my head slightly. “Not tonight,” I think to myself. Grabbing the empty bottle I walk to the bar and place it on the bar.
“Another drink, kid? Or are you finally done with tonight? Not that I don’t blame you,” Bill remarks cleaning a glass.
“Don’t blame me? Hell Bill, I thought you were a bartender; you’re starting to sound like my therapist. Next you’ll be asking how that makes me feel and if I want a tissue” I reply.
“Kid, after all my many years here, the jobs become one in the same. What has is been, a year?” I wince a bit at that comment. “Oh, so it has been.” He pauses and sets down the glass he was cleaning. “Kid, we all lose someone when we’re over there. Drinking won’t bring him anymore back than he is now. The most you can do is live in memory of him. Make his sacrifice worth something. ‘Nam wasn’t any better. I can’t count how many friends I lost. But do something other than drink.”
I smile and nearly laugh. “You know, you’ll be losing your best tipper.”
He chuckles at that, “If it’s worth seeing you better and not mopping about my bar, scaring young women. I think I can live with that.”
I pull out a fifty and lay it on the bar and extend my hand. “Thanks Bill.” He grasps my hand firmly, shaking twice. “Good luck, kid.” He says with a smile.
And with that, I walk about of the bar and into the night. Lost in my own thoughts as I walk to my apartment. My thoughts are everywhere, feelings just as scattered. I think, like I always do, what I could’ve done differently. The sudden and sad realization is nothing. I can’t change the past. I finally arrive at my apartment building, opening the door and walking up the same 5 flights of stairs like I always have. Fumbling with my keys, finding the right one, and finally unlocking the door, I stumble through the door. Tossing the keys on the small table by the door, throwing my jacket on the couch as I walk to my bedroom. I barely hit the bed before I am asleep.