Construction Literary Magazine

March 2019: Conflict & Displacement

Kinematic

Kinematic
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke via Unsplash.

Random Motion

I hate running. I call it running and not jogging because to me the word jogging feels like a pleasant pastime—enjoying scenery, breathing fresh air uniformly and without exertion. The Marine Corps doesn’t allow you to enjoy anything—so Marines fucking run. In my early days in the Marine Corps I was fast but not because I needed to be or for the Corps’ physical fitness meritocracy; I was fast because it meant that none of my noncommissioned officers could catch up and scream at me reminding me of how much I sucked at life. My legs struggled to keep up with my heart which felt like it was trying to break free through my ribcage and go AWOL.

I’m running now, but I’m with a younger Marine veteran, Matt, my luck-of-the-draw roommate at a veteran’s summer writing retreat at Marlboro College in Vermont.

Gravity

In through my nose, out through my mouth, I breathe the chlorophyll and basement August Vermont soup-air, feel it molding my lungs. A stitch bites deep into the meat at the convergence of my neck and shoulder. Left foot. Right foot. Left, left. Left right left, I singsong in my head.

It’s easy to fall back in time next to Frank. I left the Marines behind years ago, but Frank’s a lifer. Lifer is a heavy word. It has history. Mass. Gravity. It pulls me in. Pulls me back.

I was an asteroid zooming through space on a trajectory toward some other massive heavenly body and then Frank showed up with his drill instructor speech and quick wit and war stories. Now I am orbiting Frank; falling back into a rhythm, a pattern, a body I had tried to forget.

Left, left. Left right left.

Frank’s gravity warps spacetime. In one moment I am breathing Vermont soup-air.  In another, coastal Southern California scrub and wild fennel. Burning diesel and wet sand and skin on an Iraq highway. Baking apples and thick butter crust and olive oil shampoo in a rental house in Oregon. Talcum powder and beer-swollen bar wood in a Yuma strip club. Fear sweat and cigarette breath in a Camp Pendleton barracks. Hand sanitizer and body musk and blood in a future hospital delivery room. And back again.

How’s the pace? I ask.

Left, left. Left right left. Left, left. Left right left.

Translational Motion

Running south on South Road past the post office we are a mile in from our three mile run to the gym. I must be breathing heavily now because Matt wants to know if he should slow down or not. I want to respond with some smartass comment but officers don’t talk or sing ditties or cadences when we run when we march or when we hike. I’m trained to focus outboard toward the enemy and analyze the terrain, but really I use these opportunities to get lost in thought and deep reflection, try to ignore the pain in my joints. Bone grinds against bone. 

I respond that I’m good.

But I’m not.

The thought of not being a Marine anymore, as much as I hated it, scares me. In the Marine Corps you get three-hots-and-a-cot. Civilians might liken the routine to a prison but there’s security in routine. Routine fools you into thinking you can control your environment and helps prevent behavioral problems. Training is routine. Shooting is routine. Running is routine. But running can make any grown-up throw tantrums.

Matt’s left heel strikes the earth heavier than his right. We’re trained to maintain cadence and step in time but he’s driving the pace. I fail to lead the run and I can’t help but wonder if he thinks I’m just another terrible officer—lost with a compass. 

Inertial Mass

Here is a road. Here is Frank. Frank is here on this road moving his legs hoping to move on. He is not running from, but running toward. Here I am. I am here on this road moving my legs hoping to remember. Frank is running forward and I am running backward and somehow we are running in the same direction—in perfect step because we are Marines and we will conduct ourselves with some goddamned discipline.

Left right left right left right kill.

Here is a step. Here is a memory. Here is inspection and snap and pop and ears open, eyeballs click, Sir. Here is a desert war sunset like the color behind my eyelids when I close them in bright light. Here is blood. Here is a bottle of piss arcing through the air toward a neighboring fighting hole; a moment of respite. Here is an Iraqi boy in a dog kennel. Here is the taste of snow in a desert. Here is what the inside of a leg looks like. Here are the most efficient and painful ways to control a detainee. Here is an explosion. Here is the big fucking bang. Here is expansion in all directions from a set point. Here is the past Frank has helped me remember, but which I’ve been trying to forget because the truth is that in it I was always a villain, never a hero. Here is the inertial mass of trauma.

Left right left right kill I will.

Oscillatory Motion

My sneakers land with the weight of combat boots as we continue to move along unimproved roads lined with beech, spruce, birch, and other conifers–the same kinds of trees I saw in Kabul. Many of the trees are older than the campus and my mind travels through time. Marlboro’s first students were mainly World War II veterans. I imagine them using their GI Bills and walking in these woods; the lush landscape reminding them of the northern coast of France. The foliage of pine and maple with the sticky heat similar to a European summer must’ve confused their senses, set them to hypervigilance as they walked to class looking for snipers in trees or spotters camouflaged with undergrowth and dirt. I feel like I’m in Afghanistan scanning the road for IEDs. It’s quiet now, I can’t hear my heartbeat or breathing. I am not sure if the trees absorb the sounds of heel strikes and wheezing or if I’m at ease. I don’t know if I could even define the word. The World War II veterans found peace in these same woods when they couldn’t find trenches and concrete pillboxes and they stopped confusing lightning bugs with the magnesium flashes from tracer rounds.

The path we’re on isn’t littered with trash to disguise bombs. The road isn’t freshly paved or recently dug into so I’m not worried about seeing wires jutting out of the surface. I ignore my impulse to conduct five and twenty-five meter checks around me. My pace quickens.

Accretion

I’ve made a mistake. I am not orbiting Frank, only sharing a trajectory. We have become captured in the grips of something much larger than us both. Our pasts, the Marine Corps, our trauma—things done to us and things we did to others—have become massively combined. They have made a universe. We cannot orbit a universe. Universes are ever expanding; full of moments reacting to moments that then make other moments. Maybe forever.

Left, left. Left right left.

Frank and I have grown so used to our trauma universe that it is easy to forget it’s even there. Most days we do forget, and in turn we forget there is, or ever was, anything else other than the trauma universe. It’s hard to see the curves, the edges of a universe, and so it’s easy to become lost.

Left, left. Left right left.

It is nice to have company, I think.

Left, left. Left right left.

Circular Motion

My senses are accounted for, I can feel my heartbeat. I can hear my breathing. I turn to Matt and I feel secure with my new battle buddy. His hair is longer but he’s still lean and has maybe adjusted to the changes that I am facing. I am not as afraid to get out. I am no longer ashamed of being thought of as a failure.

Left, left. Left right left.

I lean back to the rhythm of heel strikes. The dust kicks up into the air taking on phantasmic shapes. We are running now, in what seems like a platoon-sized element.

Left, left. Left right left.

The dust orbits us, combining past with present. Up ahead I can see the end of the road.

Left, left. Left right left.