Coney Island In Limbo

(First published in The Rag, Winter 2012)

on the wonder wheel he stole a kiss,

and i pretended it was stolen.

we drank on the boardwalk

from a brown paper bag,

chasing homemade empanadas

felisa peddled on the sand.

 

yankee-capped larry

from pop-the-balloon

said we were his only

players  that afternoon.

we knew and he knew

but no one addressed that

his booth would be one of

the first to disappear,

like the trash-strewn empty lot

where the go-karts used to be.

 

rusty americana sold to the highest bidder,

in the name and the price of progress.

the streets are too dirty,

the patrons too poor,

and everyone knows shoot the freak

is politically incorrect.

 

but i remember dancing as

an october sun set—

there was still romance in

the grit and the grime.

the freak i had shot

took my hand and a pint and

we laughed cause ruby’s band

was so bad.

 

past the pier where lines were cast,

the tower rose lacy and red

against the autumn sky.

tiny plastic flags flew above our

hot-dog eating heads and

we took the cyclone higher than the lights.

 

in the distance the

city glowered and offices grimaced where

some fool was burning the

midnight oil because

moving forward is

more important than

saying goodbye.

 

as the train took us back up north

away from the surf

and away from the dream,

we watched through graffitied windows

as the wonder wheel slipped away. 

 

Elkhart, Indiana (a pantoum)

(First published in The Rag, Spring 2012)

 

She’s checking for the soul of her Indiana town

in the obits of the Truth every morning.

Oakland Avenue just hasn’t been the same

since they closed down Judd’s and turned off the fountain.

 

In the obits of the Truth every morning

Grandma sees girls she knew at the factory.

Since they closed down Judd’s and turned off the fountain,

there are no punch presses resisting stagnation.

 

Grandma sees girls she knew at the factory,

and she tucks their funeral cards into her purse.

There are no punch presses resisting stagnation,

since jobs disappeared and machines slowed down.

 

As she tucks their funeral cards into her purse,

she purses her lips to think of her own.

Since jobs disappeared and machines slowed down,

city alone drags forward, forgotten.

 

She purses her lips to think of her own

love gone now like the boat on St. Joe.

City alone drags forward, forgotten,

but dirty river flows on for the young and the bored.

 

Love gone now like the boat on St. Joe,

Oakland Avenue just hasn’t been the same.

Dirty river flows on for the young and the bored,

still she’s checking for the soul of her Indiana town. 

Through The Cracks

A Glimmer Train New Writers Contest Finalist

When I heard the news that Jaime Duggal had gotten his legs blown off and was wheeling around the west side of Cincinnati I wasn’t shocked. Regardless of how little Jaime’s fate tangibly affected my life, I wasn’t unaffected either. In those early days of the war I wasn’t the type to troll the army obits for familiar names, but it wasn’t as if I was ignorant to what the reality was over there. Anyone could get his legs blown off at any time, and a lucky few of them would be able to cash in on their misfortune to take a prosthetic-enhanced jog with the president. These lucky few would appear on the front pages of tabloids like the Post or the Daily News, but Jaime wasn’t among them. He was just a regular kid who went to fight for the Towers while his peers danced around with flowers in our hands, pretending we had stumbled upon a rare moment in American history when social revolution was possible.

It wasn’t possible, of course, but 9/11 had given my idle, screen-addicted generation the power of something to believe in. The problem was that we only understood such a moment in vague, made-for-TV-movie terms. This wasn’t the Sixties—Jaime had chosen to fight. High school yearbook pictures preserved acquaintances-turned-soldiers in black and white, but the way we felt about them wasn’t. Jaime, and the boys we knew in his battalion or others, was a shade of grey. Unlike the way my friends and I had been taught about the Vietnam generation, our opinions weren’t well formulated and our distaste for the war was manifest more in the buttons on our backpacks than in significant action. But, to be fair, we weren’t unlike other Americans in this way—from Capitol Hill all the way down. Jaime was just another broken young man ripped from his prime who began wheeling around the country in the second half of the decade. He was just another who had slipped through the cracks, as grey as the high school yearbook gathering dust in the back of a closet.

 

 

Jaime had grown up in a one-story, plastic-sided, Eisenhower-era house with a family of calloused Midwesterners who’d rather sweat in the old GE plant than take money from the city for their property, which was wanted to complete the cross-county highway. I’d never been to Jaime’s house, but everyone knew which one it was. I’m sure that when Jaime’s grandfather had returned from WWII and bought the place, bursting at the seams with American dream, it was a home to be proud of. By the time Jaime was born the house possessed little of that promise. Everyone at West Side High knew which one it was because of its odd location, sandwiched between the parking lot of Western Bowl and the would-be highway. On more than one occasion as we left the bowling alley my friends and I would see Jaime on his front porch, smoking a cigarette, looking out to the scraggly weeds that substituted for the tiniest of front yards. As we got into the car we’d be less than 15 feet from where he stood, but we all already knew we were lifetimes apart.

The U.S. Army recruiters had always targeted the disaffected youth of West Side High in January, when fellow students were busy preparing college and scholarship applications which the targeted, in a state of self-deprecation or lack of familial support or, keenly aware of a blemished school record, had already written off. Jaime was among those for whom college wasn’t an option. In the numb months that followed 9/11, the recruiters attacked the West Side cafeteria in unprecedented numbers. These were months shrouded in the fury of conflict, back-dropped by flickering televisions in every household that showed, ad nauseum, bodies leaping from the burning Towers. The recruiters understood that a righteous religious anger would root itself deeply in the hearts of patriotic Midwesterners, even if they had never stepped foot in New York City or Washington D.C., and that West Side High was a hotbed of kids for whom joining the Armed Forces was inevitable anyway. The recruiters brashly handed out pamphlets and set up tables; there was urgency to their mission this year that hadn’t been present in years past. Even the most liberal of teachers—of whom there weren’t many—didn’t try to dissuade their students from enlisting. Joining the Forces had morphed in the minds of West Siders from the default option for kids who didn’t have another into an outlet for the bravest to stand and fight for something worth fighting for. It would be another year before any criticism of American retaliation was mainstream, and in the west side of Cincinnati in the dull, confused beginning of 2002, the Army shone as a beacon of unshakable tradition and strength.

And the kids that ran in Jaime’s circle ate it up. They held their heads high as they floated on the currents of high school hallways; they were still safe from the flood of dead 20-somethings and the fact that their mission would become a decade-long quagmire. At graduation, the principal, who not only displayed an American flag in her front lawn but followed the rules for its care and display more ardently than an ambitious Eagle Scout, went so far as to read a list of the courageous young men and women who had signed up. I sat in the crowd with a group of other uncomfortable university-bound students, wondering if our chosen path was indeed as worthy. We knew it was, of course, because we had spent countless hours in the student council room coming to the conclusion that the “War on Terror” wouldn’t end in Afghanistan, and that even the U.N. was muddled as to what the term meant. But we were still experiencing, each in our own way, a private hell of rationalization in which we demanded of ourselves that we Support the Troops though we didn’t believe in their mission. Burdened, then, with tuition checks and dormitory assignments, we few swallowed hard and managed to leave Cincinnati in a haze of adolescent optimism that the world would work itself out.

It was a mere eleven months after 9/11 when I moved to New York, and the City was still raw and reeling from its wounds. In a sick way I, and the other college freshmen eager to join the ranks of card-carrying New Yorkers, felt as if we had missed the party. Like attending the funeral of a long-lost friend, it both was and wasn’t our tragedy to grieve, and we alternately embraced and shied away from the mourning. In the cold and grey spring of 2003 we paraded and loitered around Washington Square, raising our fists in protest, encouraged by the angry dreadlocked speakers on a makeshift podium. We skipped class to make love not war and danced with flowers in our hair, as if our joint-smoking and axiomatic posters could spur serious political change. We wore peace signs and marched while the world pretended the first great misled war of the new century wasn’t happening; we watched an old woman get kicked in the stomach by a police horse on Times Square and dodged their batons as they tried to corral us into holding pens. We were as angered when we watched the first bombs drop on Baghdad as we were when our Rights to Assembly were taken away by a lack of permit charge. We wept in earnest when the Judson Memorial Church on 4th Street began displaying photos of the Iraq War’s first victims. And I, a journalism student, became murderously cynical of a media that failed to appropriately cover the millions of people from Johannesburg to Rome who poured into the streets to protest our Texan cowboy.

All the while, the pile of rubble down in the financial district continued to shrink, the flowers left along the gate at Ground Zero began to wilt, and signs for 9/11 worker compensation began appearing on the subway. And then, as if no one saw it coming, apathy clogged the fault lines of our seismic determination. Less than a year later, the clip of Saddam’s statue coming down went viral and the world seemed more interested in the torture of prisoners than the torture of daily war. The Democrats put forth one of the most non-TV-friendly candidates since Nixon as their opposition to Bush, and both Afghanistan and Iraq gradually settled into the background din of our lives. It was as if the nation had hunkered down, had accepted what my student council peers and I had guessed—that we were in it for the long haul and there wasn’t anything we could do about it, despite the Texan having declared “Mission Accomplished” all those months ago. So we gave up, defeated and tired and ready to return to a somewhat normal pre-9/11 life. And we—I—was allowed the luxury to do so.

 

 

“Hey man, pass that mag, will you?” Jaime’s legs were stretched in front of him with the lazy assurance of someone people look to for cues. Obediently Corey tossed the Playboy he was turning upside down and settled back into his bunk. Corey picked up the Arabic textbook he knew he should have been studying instead, and turned it over in his hands without opening it. What did it matter with the Arabic anyway, Corey justified; most of the people they worked with spoke Kurdish. Jaime had managed somehow to pick it up more quickly than most of the other guys in the 2nd Battalion, which was driving Corey crazy. Jaime was the brute strength and Corey was the brains. That wasn’t supposed to change when they were assigned to the same infantry, based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, just a spit from where Corey’s horse-owning grandparents lived. It was annoying that Jaime had hidden talents. They’d known each other their whole lives; who the fuck hides the fact that he’s smart? After all, Jaime had flunked Spanish with flying colors, preferring to sit in the back and mumble dirty, vaguely Spanish phrases at their big-titted teacher. Maybe all this time he just needed another alphabet to prove he wasn’t an idiot.

“You’ll never guess what the fuck I heard today,” Jaime said, flipping through to the centerfold and drawing it close to his nose, as if attempting to smell the pussy, eat it right up through the glossy pages. Corey snorted as inquiry. “Jackie’s knocked up.”

“What?” Corey sat up and swung his legs around, his muscles tensing as he leaned forward. The textbook fell from his lap and thudded to the concrete floor.

“Yeah, man, she’s fucking pregnant.”

“What the fuck… You think it’s yours?”

“Of course it’s fucking mine, dude. What the fuck?”

“Oh come on, man, I’m just sayin’. You’ve been gone for what, four months? And, you know, I don’t mean to disrespect or anything, but Jackie was never the type of chick to keep it in her pants.”

Jaime threw the magazine across the room. “It’s mine, man. She knows better than to pull a stunt like that.”

“I’m just sayin’, it’s an awful long time for a chick not to know.”

“She said she knew like two months ago, just wanted to be sure, you know? Said she didn’t want to make me nervous or something. That I had a shitload of shit to think about right now, and she didn’t want to add to it.”

“What a nice chick.” Corey moved his legs back onto the bed and leaned against a pillow. “So what are you going to do?”

“What do you mean, what am I going to do? There’s not a whole fucking lot I can do. Toss that magazine back, will you?”

“I mean—is she going to keep it?”

“Dude, it’s been four months. You can’t fucking nuke the thing after it’s been four months.”

“Oh. So… you’re going to marry her?”

“I don’t know, man. Probably not. Depends on what her dad does.”

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, Cor. Thanks for giving a shit, though. Now keep it to your fucking self, you hear?”

            

Enlisting in the Army hadn’t been everything Jaime had hoped it would be. It had been two weeks before Jaime’s 18th birthday that the recruiters in the West Side High cafeteria had convinced him to take home the paperwork. It hadn’t taken much convincing, really—most of Jaime’s family members had served at some point, even if only in the Reserves. Jaime’s stepfather Greg spent most of his time talking about the glory he was due from the Persian Gulf War, even though he hadn’t actually seen much real combat. Every time Saddam Hussein was shown on television, Greg would lean forward and his eyes would light up, as if something instinctual was roused at the mere idea of finishing what he’d started. Jaime didn’t like Greg much, but he wanted his respect. It was why Jaime drove a stick even though the only manual he could afford was painted mustard yellow, why he’d switched from Marlboro Lights to Reds, and why he spent hours in his tiny bedroom curling the one stray weight in the house. It was probably why he’d been so proud to bring home that paperwork and walk in the door and loudly announce, waving the sheet in his right hand, “I’m gonna’ finish what you started, Greg.” Greg had put down his Bud immediately and grabbed the paper from Jaime’s hand to review it. Satisfied, he’d given Jaime a distantly affectionate slap on the shoulder blade. Jaime’s mother had cried.

When Jaime was 7, right after his mom and Greg had gotten married and back when Greg still gave a shit if Jaime liked him or not, Greg had taken him to see a movie about the Navy Seals. Jaime had been riveted, and it had nothing to do with wanting Greg’s respect. He knew that when his time came to sign up he was going to work his ass off and become a Seal. It wasn’t a dream he told anyone—not even Corey or Jackie—but something he guarded, as if telling anyone about it would jinx the whole thing. It was tricky to get the information out of the recruiter as to what he’d need to do to get on track, but he’d managed. The recruiter had let it slip that no one becomes Special Ops, let alone a Navy Seal, without knowing several languages. Jaime had, in that moment, cursed himself for spending so much time staring at Ms. Gomez’s rack instead of paying attention, but fuck. It didn’t matter anyway. Arabic—and then Kurdish—were a whole different ballgame. Unbeknownst to Corey (Jaime would have knocked in the teeth of anyone who found out) Jaime spent the summer before he had to report to Fort Campbell scouring the Internet for some background lessons. He was determined to be the best. He was determined to show Greg and everyone else the real steel he was made of.

 

It hadn’t taken much to get Corey to agree to sign up with him. Corey had pretty much always done what Jaime wanted. It had all started back in elementary school, when Corey was the only other kid without a legitimate Halloween costume for the parade. Both Corey and Jaime’s parents thought a white sheet with simple eye holes was acceptable; neither second-grader was prepared for the deluge of mockery from the pirates and firemen and even fairy princesses who thought a white sheet was lame. Corey, though, had grown up on a cul-de-sac, and didn’t share any of the guarded, secret ambition that Jaime did. Corey moved through life with the complacency of a middle-class upbringing, secure that when food or money or new clothes were needed they’d somehow always appear. It wasn’t that Corey didn’t care about money or was naïve, but he hadn’t fallen asleep most nights listening to arguments in a room separated by a very thin wall about the mortgage and the car payment and the credit card bills. Jaime had more to overcome, to rise above, to escape; their ambitions and long-term goals for serving reflected this. Corey had signed up because he sure as hell wasn’t getting into a university right away, and Boot Camp sounded an awful lot like football camp. He’d make his dad proud—who’d also served in the Persian Gulf—and piss off his pacifist of an older brother who had always been the black sheep, but nonetheless his parents’ favorite. He knew Jaime was after something bigger, glory maybe, but he had no idea Jaime was determined to be a Seal. He probably wouldn’t have taken it seriously had he known. Jaime never struck him as the ambitious type.

Still, Jaime was in fact determined. The plan was to spend the next ten years in the service, routing terrorists, shooting a machine gun from a cave, and whipping his body into tremendous shape by the grueling long hikes over terrain that made even Red River Gorge look like child’s play. He’d start where he was placed, which just so happened to be the 2nd Battalion, 502nd infantry, stationed in Mosul. It was a stroke of luck—or maybe a reward for giving up those hours inside of Jackie to study that damned backwards Arabic—that he had been placed in Mosul. In early 2003, Kurdistan, the area of Iraq that Mosul bordered, had seen a lot of action. Jaime’s plan was to kick some serious ass by being one of the most serious soldiers in his battalion, and attract the attention of commanding officers like some goodie-two-shoes in a WWII flick. He’d be invited to join the Special Ops by the time he was 21, spend another two years kicking more ass, and then be promoted and invited to Seal training by the time he was 23. Then the trick would be to maintain a level of stone cold stoicism when badgered by his commanding officers. He was prepared to be sprayed with hoses filled with freezing cold water, swim three miles in the ocean, and then refuse a cup of hot chocolate—something he’d heard went down at Seal training.

When Jaime got back, he’d be ready to be drowned in pussy for his noble efforts. He’d have saved nearly half a million bucks, and he’d get all sorts of sick vouchers to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. And fuck ITT Tech, once he had been a Seal, he could straight up breeze into the admissions office at Ohio State. They’d probably give him a medal with his class schedule. Serving in Iraq—and the trajectory that followed—was Jaime’s ticket off his gnarly front porch. All those kids in high school who’d bounced off to university right after graduation, they’d eat their fucking hearts out at the ten-year reunion. It was also his ticket to be knee-deep in patriotic tits. He’d tell the not-so-tall-tales of his close call with the dusty towelheads to chicks from Cleveland to Louisville and he wouldn’t even need to jerk off till he was on the downward slope to forty. Of course, Jackie being prego—and his maybe-responsibility to marry the bitch—put a damper on those plans. Fuck it, he thought. My father didn’t marry her and Mom turned out all right.

It wasn’t just the Jackie debacle that was messing with Jaime’s head, however. Nothing was turning out the way he wanted; it was as if Kurdistan had already been drained of the good shit before the U.S. invasion even really went down. In February, the first major battle had been won when the 10th Special Forces Group, with a little help from the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Army, routed Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish terrorist group. The rest of the U.S. population was preoccupied—some practically worshipping Bush, some stupid enough to believe Bush was making up Saddam’s WMD. Pretty much everyone missed one of the coolest things the Special Forces had ever done. The stupid protesters had no fucking clue—the 10th Special Forces Group had discovered WMD at Sargat, and they were even dumber if they thought Saddam hadn’t known about it. Jaime hadn’t ever been prouder to be a part of something—he couldn’t fucking wait to get over there. He spent hours trying in earnest to understand the difference between the Peshmerga and the Ansar al-Islam terrorists, but it was a lot of history and it either hadn’t been taught at West Side or Jaime had been too preoccupied to learn it. In the first few weeks at Fort Campbell Jaime had been tempted to decide they were all just towelheads blowing each other up; he had tried to convince himself that it didn’t matter. But he, goddamnit, was going to be a Seal. He not only had to know it mattered—he had to know why, how, and in what ways. Regardless, there was a volcano-sized lump of conflicted emotional lava bubbling deep inside. Deep down, Jaime just wanted a piece of the noble side of action. He wanted, he deserved, a bit of the glory that came with fighting bad guys, no matter who the fuck those bad guys were.

Jaime and Corey shipped off for Mosul at the end of 2003, just after Thanksgiving and weeks after Jaime turned 20. Jackie had come down to Fort Campbell to see him off—this was when she insisted he shouldn’t wear a condom because she’d douche afterward and because he should know what real pussy felt like before he could potentially die. That was the whole problem, though. There was no way he was going to potentially die. He hadn’t seen any real action the whole four months he’d been there. He’d heard a couple of bombs going off, sure, and there had been a few roadside bombs. Every other week or so a rag-tag bunch of militants attacked a police station or something like that. But most of the Seal-worthy action was happening somewhere else: in Baghdad, in the desert, in the mountains where the bastards could hide out in caves or some shit like that. Much to his increasing frustration, Jaime spent his days wandering the city with a gun slung over his shoulder, making nice with the locals. He’d earned a reputation for his burgeoning Arabic, but he felt antsy. If he never saw intense combat, he’d never be invited to Special Ops training. It all felt like bullshit.

 

 

Jamal looked out across the desert night, lit by the city lights of Mosul in the distance. From where he sat the craggy mountains looked like falafal balls stacked on top of each other. He was having another lonely, homesick night and, though he’d never admit it to anyone, wished his mother were there to speak with. She hadn’t been pleased when he’d joined the Peshmerga to be a translator last year, just weeks after his 19th birthday. His mother didn’t understand the vengeance that he sought in joining, and Jamal didn’t understand her ambivalence toward a Kurdish state. His entire life had been circumscribed by political events over which he had no control, and as soon as he was able he felt compelled to take up the cause. He knew, however, that his driving motivation wasn’t necessarily pure—vengeance never was—and so largely claimed an extreme Kurdish nationalism as his reason for dedicating the foreseeable future. No one would question it—everyone had expected Malik Chelki’s stepson to become politicized at a young age.

Jamal had been told that Baba was working for the Iranians when Jamal was born. His mother, his dayig, didn’t remember exactly what it was that Baba did, and it had always bothered Jamal that either she didn’t care enough to ask or, inversely, that Baba didn’t want to tell her. As far as he knew, Baba hadn’t been involved in politics—at least not to the extent that his brother Malik was. Malik was an officer in the KDP, the Kurdish Democratic Party. Jamal and his parents lived in Halabja, which wasn’t as far from Baghdad geographically as it was socially. Jamal didn’t remember Halabja well, however, and the town had become less a Kurdish village than a rallying cry for justice by the time Jamal was old enough to conceptualize his hometown. When Jamal was only four Malik had convinced Baba to send his wife and son to Baghdad—Malik had warned Baba that anti-Kurdish sentiment was on the rise on the capital. That was a bad sign for predominantly Kurdish villages like Halabja. It wasn’t that Baba hadn’t taken Malik seriously, Jamal was later told, but that he was an honorable man who always followed through on his assignments. Jamal imagined that Baba was under Iranian contract for something integral to defeating Saddam, and had bravely insisted on staying for the good of Kurdistan while he tearfully sent his family away. It was the image of Baba that he kept close—Jamal rarely permitted anyone to speak of his father in case the image be marred.

Baba had been killed in the first Al-Anfal campaign in 1987. Baba’s surviving family hadn’t gotten confirmation of his death for many months, though they heard rumors of what had happened in Halabja in the immediate week following the attack. It was first blamed on the Iranians. One of Jamal’s earliest memories was of his mother screaming to Allah and cursing the country that had stolen her husband; bawling for a betrayal that had seemed so complete and simple. Perhaps she never really recovered from the belief that the Shah had been behind it, though no one else Jamal associated with in adulthood was aligned with her. Everyone knew it was Saddam’s cousin who had orchestrated the attacks on his own countrymen; word was that even the U.S. had gotten wind of the massacre and had continued to support Saddam (and his family) in the Iran–Iraq War. Of course, Jamal didn’t know any of this at the time. He was only told his father wouldn’t be joining them in Baghdad, and that Dayig was obligated to marry Malik in a levirate. By the time Jamal was five, Baba was as mystical a figure as Muhammad himself, and Malik was the only father he knew.

Jamal leaned back against the cool rock and looked up at the stars. The light coming from the center of Mosul was brighter than it seemed it should be. Jamal wondered just how many kilometers he was from Halabja, a place he had sworn never to return. It was too much. Most men he knew had lost fathers or uncles or loved ones over the years—premature death was something that was as intuitive to Iraqi Kurds as breathing. Jamal knew he was different from most of his peers for his inability to forget, to let go, though he knew a handful of other men who had joined the Peshmerga for similar reasons—primarily to make sure Saddam got what he had coming. The first time Jamal had been truly incited with political anger was just before Malik had gone to fight for Kuwait. Malik had been as buoyant as an Afghan kite in the weeks before he enlisted. All of Kurdish Baghdad was buzzing with the rumor that the U.S. had finally seen the error of its ways and would go to war with Saddam. Even in his premature seven-year-old head Jamal had felt somewhat conflicted about the jubilation. Why Kuwait? Why would the U.S. fight for them and not Baba? Why had the Kurds been sprayed with fatal chemicals for months, but when Saddam merely spoke of rolling tanks into Kuwait City even the United Nations condemned the action? Regardless of motivation, however, most of the KDP rank and file were exultant in their thinking that this war could be the end of Saddam. When Malik left Dayig and Jamal, he told Jamal that he was going to avenge Baba’s death. Malik returned to Baghdad a mere two months later with much less of the vigor that he had had. Politics, Malik had decided, were eternally doomed. There would be no justice. Malik had bemoaned the fact that the Kurds were at that time simply unable to finish what had been started.

The political apathy that Malik had returned with was a slow disease that spread throughout the Kurdish neighborhoods in Baghdad. The KDP soon fractured with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) again, and news of serious violence within the burgeoning Kurdistan nation spread like typhoid across the Kurdish world. The dream of a unified Kurdistan was distant again. Malik drifted away from political life, but his passion and enthusiasm had deeply affected his stepson. Though after Kuwait he was no longer a figurehead, Malik was still a prominent man who had dedicated many years of his life to the KDP, and the party did not forget Malik’s family. Jamal was educated in the Supplementary School where he received an education atypical of Kurdish children—Iraqi children, even—and learned to speak English. Despite this intellectual lagniappe, Jamal had a relatively normal childhood: they went to Zawra Park to celebrate Nawrooz; he learned how to catch carp on the Tigris and roasted it on an open flame with Malik. All his teachers said Jamal was a shoe-in to the University of Baghdad despite his Kurdish heritage, but then the world was shaken by bombs going off in a country everyone thought was immune to fire. It was just after 9/11—and just before the KDP and PUK issued the Washington Declaration—that Malik died in a freak car accident in Baghdad. Neither Dayig nor Jamal cried at the funeral, though they had both loved Malik. Their pain, however, felt more like an old scar than an open wound; there was some comfort in the familiarity of that pain.

After the accident, with the world reeling with the realization that the impenetrable United States had been penetrated, Jamal decided to delay university and instead dive whole-heartedly into the world to which Malik had dedicated his youth. The year that followed was hazy, and Baghdad tensed its collective muscles when President Bush vowed to route Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Jamal, at a mature and well-educated 17, understood the socioeconomic intricacies of the Taliban better than most of his peers and feared that terrorism wasn’t something distinguishable in the minds of Westerners from war. The Westerners, after all, had somehow seen a clear distinction between Chemical Ali’s campaign in Halabja and the invasion of Kuwait—a distinction Jamal knew was drawn solely for political reasons. How long until the president-cowboy avenged his own father’s loss at the hands of Saddam and decided to blur the distinction of terror and war in the minds of the American people? How long until the Afghan War migrated to Baghdad?

Jamal and his peers discussed the possibility over endless cups of tea and seesha-filled hookahs. Jamal resolutely announced that if the KDP and the PUK were able to unite, they’d be able to capitalize on a possible U.S. invasion. No one believed Jamal was a seer, but he had been precisely right. By the summer of 2002, rumors were flying that the KDP and the PUK were drawing terms and that the U.S. was planning, again, on moving in to take out Saddam. In early October the U.S. Congress authorized the president to move troops into Iraq, and merely three days later the KDP and the PUK settled terms in the Washington Declaration. Saddam would finally get what he had coming—Baba would finally be avenged. Jamal signed up to translate for the Peshmerga; though he was longing to fight, he knew his schoolboy body wasn’t up to the task and that the Peshmerga needed English-speakers if they were going to cooperate with the Americans. Just before he left for Mosul, Jamal visited Malik’s grave and whispered reverently that he “would finish what Malik had started.” Jamal’s mother had cried.

The Peshmerga gained a reputation even before the official U.S. invasion, when a U.S. Army Special Forces Group joined the Peshmerga and defeated Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish terrorist group. Jamal was confused as to how he felt about the victory; though Ansar al-Islam was, in fact, a group of militant misfits who supported Al Qaeda for the senseless murder of Westerners, they were also Kurds. Jamal’s stomach twisted into guilty knots as he penned Peshmerga accounts of firing on their own people, aware that if any ethnic group was entitled to senseless militancy it was the Kurds. He wasn’t sure how Malik would have felt had he lived to see him in his Peshmerga uniform, though it was impossible to imagine. Malik’s ultimate dream had been the union of Kurdistan itself that, with the defeat of Ansar al-Islam, Jamal was in fact defending. Yet to kill his own people to do so?

It helped Jamal to realize that the rest of the world was also embroiled in its own site-specific ethical dilemma. As the date drew nearer to the March 19 U.S. bombing of Baghdad, images came across al-Jazeera of millions of Americans pouring into Washington D.C. to protest the invasion. Jamal understood the reasons for the protesters, but he did not agree with them. How could they protest the removal of someone like Saddam Hussein? Did they not even know about the Kurdish genocide? Regardless of his private concerns, Jamal was enjoying his post. It was a pretty cushy one after all, and Jamal liked the inflated sense of ego that came with telling Americans what they were hearing. Unlike most Peshmerga, Jamal had mixed feelings about America. In some ways it seemed that the American soldiers he interacted with were fighting solely for the glory, or (as rumor had it) for a chance to go to college for free. Jamal’s whole life had built up to this point—every heartbreak, every lonely night, every intense political discussion. It was revenge for his father’s death; it was closure to his uncle-stepfather’s story. It was an opportunity to make his mother believe in Kurdistan. Hell, it was pulsing through the blood of his ancestors, who had been displaced around the Arabian Peninsula for centuries, never with a home of their own. It wasn’t the Americans’ war to fight. This one, finally, belonged to the Kurds.

 

 

“Hey, Cor, grab me a bottle of water, huh?” Jaime’s voice rose above the din of the mess hall, just deep enough to still command attention. Satisfied that Corey had heard his request, Jaime leaned back in his chair and pushed the food on the plastic tray around. The MRE he pushed around wasn’t too far a cry from the food he’d grown used to in the Cincinnati public school system, and the mess hall itself wasn’t entirely different—in smell, feel, or politics—than a high school cafeteria. Corey dropped a water bottle onto Jaime’s lap and sat down next to him, noisily clattering his tray to the table.

“You hear we’re patrolling the streets again this week?”

“Yea. Man. It’s getting boring, you know? Fuck. I just want to use these muscles they made us work so hard on!”

“Come on, Jaime. It’s why we’re here.”

“Sure, I guess.” Jaime took a thoughtful bite of his burned lasagna and shook his head. “I mean, though, I can’t even tell who the fuck we’re fighting. I heard a new group of Pesh are joining up with us today.”

“Naw, man. Just a translator.”

“What, I’m not good enough?”

Corey laughed, almost maliciously. “You don’t know Kurdish, man. Your Arabic ain’t worth shit when we’re working with the Pesh.”

“That’s not even true.”

“Whatever, sure it is. And besides, you know whoever they send over here is going to, like, totally trump you in the language department. I’ll bet you a pack of American cigs he knows at least four.”

“What the fuck? Aren’t you supposed to be on MY side?”

“I am on your side. I just think you’re getting a big head about this Arabic thing. Jesus, it’s not like you’re the first fucking soldier to learn it.”

“Naw, but I’m the best in our battalion.”

“Whatever man. Fuck that.”

“Fuck what?”

“Being the best at Arabic. It’s not like you’re going to move up through the ranks cause you can write in curly ques. The rate we’re going, none of us are heading toward military greatness. We’re just fucking bodies, patrolling the streets.”

“Fuck that! We’re doing something big here, Cor.”

“No we’re not. And you ain’t bigger than anyone else. You’re here to follow orders, just like the rest of us.”

Jaime pushed his tray away from him. “Look, why are you being a dick?”

“What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“Whatever man. I’m not even hungry. I’m going outside for a cig.”

Jaime left his chair in the middle of the walkway when he stood up, and his tray on the table. Corey’d have to take care of it. Who the fuck was Corey to talk all that shit anyway? As he leaned against the building he pulled out a pack of Reds—his mom and Greg sent a carton in a care package each month, even though he could buy them at the trading post—and fumbled in his pockets for a lighter. “Fuck,” he grunted. He had left his lighter in the barrack. Jaime almost ran into the Kurd wandering the American base as he turned the corner to head back to his bunk for it. The Marlboro was dangling from his sticky, dry lips; Jaime had left the water bottle in the mess hall with his tray.

“Need a match?” Of course. It was the new fucking translator. Just what Jaime didn’t want to think about.

Jamal pulled a pack of nondescript matches from his jacket pocket and handed them to Jaime. “Thanks,” said Jaime. “Shukran.”

“You’re welcome.” Jamal pulled a cigarette pack out and lit one, looking directly into Jaime’s eyes. Jaime couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable, this Kurd staring at him like that. He shifted his weight and exhaled, careful to hold eye contact.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Jaime took a deep drag and waited for the answer he already knew.

“I’m the new translator. I’m here to speak with the colonel.”

Jaime couldn’t help but notice the hint of pride in Jamal’s tone. It pricked him strangely. He felt a tide of jealously rise in his gut, spurred both by the fact that this Pesh had allegedly learned his language better than Jaime could Arabic, and because this small-framed stranger claimed to have a personal meeting with the colonel. His colonel.

“Yeah, well, his office is over there. Building 7.”

“Thank you, Private…”

“Private Duggal. Jaime Duggal.” Jaime raised his hand to his forehead instinctively to salute. Jamal returned the gesture.

“Private Jamal. Jamal Muhammad Chelik.”

Ok, so the Pesh didn’t really know how to speak English. Private Jamal—Jaime tried to choke back a snorting laugh. “It’d be Private Chelik, man.” Jamal’s stone face didn’t return any of the jest.

“Peshmerga use our pronom. It’s a sign of trust; of comradery among brothers. Building 7 you said?” Without waiting to hear Jaime’s affirmation, Jamal turned and walked away. Jaime drew deeply on his cigarette and shook his head. He didn’t know any words as complex as comradery in Arabic.

            

That night Jaime left the base to sit along the cool rocks overlooking Mosul. He liked being high above the city. He went there often when he was homesick, because in a strange way it reminded him of standing on his front porch that dead-ended into the bowling lane parking lot, where he used to smoke cigs and try to look condescending at the rich girls who were waiting for their parents to pick them up. As he approached his usual spot, however, there was already an ember flickering. Of fucking course. The Pesh.

“You smoke a lot too, huh?” Jaime stood awkwardly, looking down at the tiny, dark man. He looked smaller against this rock, without the mission of speaking to the colonel making his chest swell with ego.

“Not really. I just started,” said Jamal.

“Stupid. That shit kills you, you know,” said Jaime, half-smiling and slumping down a few feet away, against the same rock.

Jamal didn’t smile. “Most everyone I know is dead anyway.”

“Oh.”

There was a long silence, as both men finished their cigarettes and looked over Mosul. It was Jaime who spoke first, just as Jamal lit another. Jaime followed suit.

“So... you from Mosul?”

“No. I’m from Halabja.”

“Really?” Jaime had studied Halabja when he was attempting to figure out the Kurds. It was way worse than any of the horror stories his grandfather had told about the Japs. The Internet was full of photos of piles of dead women and children, stacked high from the gas Saddam had sprayed.

“Yes.”

“I guess that’s why pretty much everyone you know is dead.” As soon as the words left Jaime’s mouth he regretted them. It was like asking someone from New York how many people they’d seen jump.

Jamal looked over at Jaime with disbelief. What in Allah kind of thing to say was that?

“What the hell do you know about it?” Jamal’s voice was tense, like muscles of a tiger readying to pounce.

Jaime knew to back down and his voice was quiet, but not timid. “Nothing, really. I mean, I know what happened. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up like that.”

“I forgive you. It won’t be long before people make jokes about 9/11, you know. The world’s like that. Nothing can be taken too seriously, especially when it didn’t happen to you. That is how we Kurds rationalize the world’s ignorance of our people’s situation.”

Jaime was taken aback both by Jamal’s blunt openness and his wisdom. He didn’t look a day over 20.

“How old are you?”

“Nearly 21.”

“Me too.”

There was another silence as they both finished their second cigarettes and lit another. Jaime was taken aback by his sudden, unfamiliar amenity toward this stranger.

“I speak a little Arabic, you know,” he said finally.

“Oh?” Jamal didn’t seem interested.

“Yeah. I’m the best in the battalion.”

“Oh.”

Jaime saw that Jamal wasn’t impressed, and dropped it. He wasn’t, however, ready to drop the conversation. It was nice to talk comfortably with someone other than Corey.

“So... you’re from Halabja. Where’d you grow up?”

“Baghdad. With my mother and stepfather.”

“I grew up in Ohio, with my mother and stepfather too. It’s in the middle.”

“I know. I went to the Supplementary School. There was a map of the U.S. in my classroom.”

“Really? There weren’t maps of Iraq in mine.”

“Yes, well, that’s not surprising.”

“So is your stepfather a soldier? Why did you join the Peshmerga?”

Jamal drew a sharp breath. “My reasons are not simple. Are anyone’s? But no, my stepfather is dead. He was killed in a car accident just a couple months after September 11th. He fought in Kuwait, though.”

“So did my stepdad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. They could have sat here just like this,” Jamal said almost inaudibly, his mind flickering briefly to the vacancy in Malik’s eyes upon his return, and the subsequent lack of interest in anything marginally political. Jaime took his quietness for sanctity, as if deep in thought about the man who had raised him. Jaime thought about Greg and wondered if he’d think of him with the same reverence when he died. Probably not.

“So why did you join, then?” asked Jamal.

“I want to be a Navy Seal.” What? How the hell had that just left his mouth?

“You’re here for the glory, then.”

“Not only. That 9/11 shit? That shit was fucked up. Fucked up like Halabja, you know? Even if it wasn’t the president that did it. I don’t know. I mean, I guess I was always going to join the Army. Everyone in my family does.”

“I’m the only one in my family, not counting my father’s brother.”

“What about your stepdad?”

“He was my father’s brother.”

Jaime began to say something crude and caught himself. “Um, that’s kind of fucked up.”

“No. It’s a levirate. It is customary for Kurdish widow to marry the brother of her husband.”

“Wow. I can’t fucking imagine that.”

“There is plenty about any culture that’s not your own that you can’t imagine.” There was a pause, and suddenly Jamal turned to Jaime and half-smiled for the first time in their conversation.

“Like is it true in America that a woman can have a baby without a husband?”

 “Um, that’s sex, dude.”

Jamal almost blushed. “No, I mean, she’s permitted to live in society still, not hidden… no one hides the child?”

“Yeah. My…” Jaime trailed off. He was already telling this stranger way too much.

“Your what?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh. Do you know a woman that had a child when she was not married?”

“Um, yeah.”

“See, that’s unimaginable to me. And how about money? People just throw it around?”

Jaime almost laughed. “No way, dude! I didn’t have any of that shit growing up. That’s partly why I’m here. Most of the guys out here didn’t have any real money growing up. People that have money in America go to college.”

Jamal laughed now. “But you get to go for free after the Army, yes?”

“I fucking hope so,” said Jaime. “As long as you guys do your job and protect us.”

Jamal’s face changed, but it was too dark for Jaime to see. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you know, keep an eye out when we’re on the streets.”

“You know it’s you that should be keeping an eye out for us.”

“What?”

“Yes. You are in Kurdistan.”

“Um, I’m in Iraq. Kurdistan isn’t a country.”

“For us that is partially why we are here.”

“Well that’s dumb. There’s a lot of other shit to think about.”

Jamal stood suddenly, and Jaime felt very small against the rock. He could see Jamal’s face, stone-cold in the moonlight, reflecting none of the warmth that came from the city lights of Mosul in the distance. “I was wrong to sit here with you like this. We are nothing alike.”

Jaime stood, and the two men stared at each other for some time, each dragging on the filters of their cigarettes, not wanting to be the first to move. Jaime eventually slumped, and put the butt out with the heel of his boot. “Yeah, I guess not. Whatever man. A salaam alaikum, Private Jamal.”

“See you around, Private Duggal.”

 

 

When the bomb went off Mosul wasn’t shaken, not any more than any town in Iraq in was shaken by bombs in 2004. It was more the norm than anything else, and though the blood that ran from Jaime’s uniform turned a sienna color he’d only seen in movies when it mixed with the dirt, no one seemed to think it was strange. It was just another day—another one of those non-eventful, non-Seal-worthy days, and Jaime was making the rounds as usual. He was still preoccupied with the conversation he had had with Jamal the week before; he thought that maybe he had been too crass, or too cold, or too American… he couldn’t remember what he had said that had turned Jamal so far from him. Jamal was, perhaps, his ticket to somewhere bigger, somewhere greater. If he could speak Kurdish too he’d be a real asset to the battalion, and not even Corey could tell him it didn’t matter. And he could teach Jamal about America, the real America, where girls getting pregnant wasn’t a big deal. He couldn’t shake Jamal’s small-framed “big-ness” from his mind—what was the right word? Presence? Jamal might even know the English word he was looking for.

And then it happened. Out of nowhere.

Jaime was leaning against a car to light a cig to aid his thoughts; it sounded like nothing and everything and his ears went white. The dust kicked up from the car’s blast and swept dirt from the streets into the crevices of doors and windows. Women screamed and babies cried and men ran in every direction, covering their heads; women’s burqas dragged over the tiny pebbles that shouldn’t have been in Jaime’s line of sight. Sirens mounted to the corners of restaurants wailed with the sad, haunting determination of embedded journalists and Jaime was vaguely aware of glass shattering somewhere, of hands on his torso, of the smell coming from his fire-resistant but still charred uniform. He looked down at his feet and felt as if they were years away from him, sticking off of branches that no longer belonged to his tree; there was no way that that blood was coming from his body, it was so oddly colored and dribbling out all the wrong way. He thought he heard Corey’s voice, “It’s gonna’ be ok, man, it’s gonna’ be ok, man…” and somewhere in delirium whispered “Yeah, man, Seals don’t even feel it,” but as consciousness drained from his pale, bloodless face he thought only of Jackie, Jackie in a burqa, dragging pebbles across the dirt ground, her swelled belly leaning toward him, wiping the sweat from his brow.

 

 

The articles at home that electronically made their way to our inboxes, or that were printed on papers left to wilt in the humid days of late spring didn’t mention Jaime’s life or his plans or his unborn baby. American Soldier Injured in Roadside Car Bomb, Mosul; Mosul Heats Up As American Death Toll Rises; Word of Insurgency Gaining Ground In Mosul. They were tucked away deep in publications, on pages that people skimmed or skipped altogether. Most articles about the distant and increasingly depressing war escaped our scrutiny. There just wasn’t enough in them to pique our interests. Politics were much more interesting, though we disgusted ourselves with loyalty to Kerry who, despite best efforts, we already guessed was no match for the Bush machine. Soldiers we knew who were stationed in Iraq existed flatly on MySpace—we rarely thought of them unless we could use them as a way to illustrate our opinion of the war. And then something horrible would happen, something that shook us from our conscious ignorance, and we had no idea how to tell the people we knew how sorry for their loss we really were. 

I heard about Jaime through the proverbial high school grapevine, and only then did I go back and scour archives for something about his injury, discovering details about how the smoke looked, how the flesh flew, how a young soldier from the west side of Cincinnati—a 20-year-old expectant father—would never walk again. Of course, the reporter closed her piece on an optimistic note, what with the advances in technology and military medicine Jaime had the option of metal legs, a high-risk but high-benefit experimental procedure. I wondered if an operation like that was covered with a veteran insurance plan. For a while Jaime’s plight made the distant war feel closer to home. His fate found a place among the sadness and bleakness in my feelings toward both Iraq and Afghanistan, but thoughts of Jaime soon took a backseat to daily life again. They had to. That’s what war does.

Summer came and went; Kerry lost the election; the same shroud of chaos and hopelessness that had infected America in the dark days following 9/11 again permeated the national psyche. Despite a resurgence of the anger after a handful of us were scooped up by the NYPD, protesting the Republican National Convention a few months before, the naïve hope for a speedy peace died with the re-election of Bush. There was no skipping finals to make love not war; no parading around Washington Square Park with the expectation that the flowers we put in our hair would make the news. I went back to Cincinnati for winter break with a determination to ignore the thousands of bumper stickers reading things like “Christians for Bush,” “Boycott France,” “My husband voted Democrat and all I got was this lousy burqa,” and “It’s God’s job to forgive Bin Laden, it’s ours to arrange the meeting—U.S. ARMY MOM.” It was harder, though, to ignore country songs blasting over Wal-Mart airwaves that pronounced a proud ignorance of the difference between Iraq and Iran, or that someone’s ass was going to be kicked by the Red, White, and Blue.

That night at Brian’s party it seemed that all the other tattooed, hair-dyed, pot-smoking people were committed to ignoring the news and the bumper stickers and the country songs too. The house was full of people I had marginally known in high school and I took comfort in the fact that in only 18 months the old crew had morphed into one I barely recognized; high school politics were completely dead. It didn’t matter who had gone to war, who had gone to college, or who had gotten pregnant. We were on our fourth fifth of Jack when Jaime wheeled in, legs missing, and we, in a confused sort of shame, stood gawking awkwardly as if Jaime had brought with him his entire battalion. Corey wasn’t with him. Everyone knew Corey was still over there, and seeing Jaime without his sidekick made the room feel large and splintered. Jackie wasn’t there either, and no one addressed the fact that she wasn’t. I’m sure that no one turned off the music, but it felt that way—frozen eye-locking, reassessing the chasm that had grown between our lives in the past year that had always been there, but never so pointed, never so painfully obvious. He had given his legs while I had danced. The chasm grew wider, grew too large to catch all the little pieces of people and lives and anger and stories that continued to fall through, and somewhere, millions of miles and lifetimes in the distance, the war raged on in a haze of smoke and fire.