This piece was submitted by Roxana Robinson as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Roxana Robinson’s Event: Writing War
There was a change in the engine pitch. The droning roar turned lower and more purposeful: the plane was changing angle. They were leaving the level flight path, nosing downward. Conrad felt an uneasy drop inside. After a moment he realised he was bracing himself against the seat, feet pressing hard against the floor as though against brakes. He made himself relax.
He leaned toward the window, looking out: until now there’d been nothing to see. They’d left Frankfurt at night and had crossed all of Europe in darkness. The whole continent had lain below them, dark as the night sky itself, revealed only by constellations of city lights. By daybreak they’d been high over the Atlantic, droning over the grey emptiness, far above the miniature waves and the distant, frozen whitecaps. Now they were over land again. Nova Scotia? Newfoundland? Anyway, North America. Home ground. Again Conrad felt the uneasy drop.
Below him lay dense green forest, broken only by the drifting silver shapes of lakes. From here the lakes seemed languidly swirling and eddying, as though the edge of a swamp had been stirred with a stick. All around them were woods.
Conrad imagined walking through the trees below: the leafy, springy duff, soft underfoot. The clean aromatic tang of balsam, flecks of sunlight scattered across the dim trunks. The soil beneath these trees was always in shade. The air was always cool. Always cool. The notion gave him a kind of vertigo, and he closed his eyes.
What came into his mind was the place he had left, which was still there. He was here, descending over this place, cool, verdant, silent. The place he had left, which was still there, was arid, brown, deafening. Suffocatingly hot, heat pressed over it like a mattress. At this moment, while he was here, that place was there. But he could not hold both places in his mind at once. Trying to do so felt risky.
Conrad turned away from the window and looked at the man beside him: Sergeant Anderson, first squad leader, was still out cold.
Anderson was slumped in his seat, his big head flopped sideways, the wide chin sunken into his neck. His white-blond eyebrows were bright against the charred red of his face. His hair was blond like his eyebrows, but it was barely there. The buzz-cut had shaved it down to a pale mist over his skull. Anderson’s lips were slightly parted, saliva glistening faintly at one corner. He’d barely moved since Germany, none of them had. The plane was full of sprawling, loose-lipped Marines, lost, gone, dead to the world.
It gave Conrad satisfaction to see them like this, especially Anderson. Sleep was like salary, his men were owed. Seven months on duty, without one day off. They deserved to sleep for months, years, decades. They deserved this long roaring limbo, this deep absence from the world, from themselves. This plane ride was the floating bridge between where they’d been and where they were going, between deployment and the rest of their lives. They deserved these hours of unconsciousness, this gorgeous black free-fall.
There was something else they deserved, something he couldn’t define. They were all, himself as well, part of something vast and interlocking, where movements were slow and tectonic. Deep shifting currents would carry them on to some form of deliverance. He trusted in this. He couldn’t define it or identify it, the movement or the destination, only sense it. His brain felt blurred, as though the plane were flying too fast for his thoughts.
Everything in his mind felt provisional, in fact. Lack of sleep: it was hard to think. His thoughts felt loose and shifting, temporarily in place. The way everything in country had been provisional, nothing certain. Life had been improvised, moment by moment, for fourteen months. Tension was the steel skeleton on which everything else hung. He woke up early to it each day, white heat beating into the roof, urgency already flooding through his system. Fear. You didn’t call it fear, but that’s what it was. All that was over now, but the habit was hard to break. Was it a habit, or a way of life? He wondered how long it would take to become a different person, how you’d know.
The flight attendant appeared in the aisle. She was blond but old, with waves of dry ashy hair. Her face was small and foxy, she had a pointy nose and thin, tidy mouth. She was wearing a sort of uniform, navy vest and skirt, long-sleeved white blouse. Smiling, she leaned into the little private space made by the high seatbacks. Her face drew nearer to Conrad.
“May I take that glass, sir?”
Her chapped lips were outlined in neon: her pale orange lipstick had worn off in the middle. On her vest a small, winged gold emblem was pinned. Conrad glanced at it, automatically checking for rank, but of course she had no rank. It was an airline pin, she was a civilian. For some reason this irritated him, his glance, his realisation. Irritability was also a result of sleep-deprivation.
Conrad held out his glass and she reached for it across the sleeping Anderson. She glanced down at him, then back at Conrad, pursing her mouth in a smile.
“Anything else I can get you, sir?”
She was half-whispering, and her manner was both patronising and intimate. It seemed to suggest that she and Conrad were in some kind of condescending collusion, like parents whispering over a sleeping child. Anderson, who was a man of extraordinary valor and kindness, and on whom Conrad had relied mightily, was not to be treated like a child by a civilian stewardess. A black point of anger flared in Conrad’s chest. He looked at her without smiling.
“No, thanks,” he said.
She still hovered, but Conrad said nothing more. She leaned in further toward him, and a small gold cross on a chain swung out from her neck. She was too close, and he could smell her perfume, sweet and fruity.
She spoke confidingly. “You know, I just want to say, ‘thank you’.” Her voice was husky. “For what you’ve done for our country. All you boys. Helping to make us safe back home.”
“Thank you,” Conrad said, nodding, the black point was sharp inside his chest.
“Really.” Beneath her eyes were dark smudges of mascara, outlining the wrinkles.
Conrad said nothing, gazing back. She waited, too close. They were alone in the space between the seats.
Conrad breathed through his mouth so he wouldn’t smell the perfume.
“Thank you,” he said again, to make her leave.
She looked at him, her small blue eyes bright and liquid. She waited, but Conrad only stared, and her smile faded. She drew back, and the little cross swung back inside her blouse. She was still smiling, but now the smile was impersonal. She put the glass into her stack and moved to the next row.
Conrad wondered if she’d say the same thing to the next officers. What was it that she thought they’d done, to make her so much safer? He thought of the woman with the basket, Olivera whispering. The dog. The brown streets of Ramadi, the blowing trash.
He looked out the window again. They were now descending rapidly. Along the coastline was a filigree of miniature bays and islands, edged with bright foam. At the shore the water was turquoise and transparent, but, as it deepened, it darkened to cobalt, and became opaque.
Conrad felt his chest constricting, the point of anger widening. He thought of her fruity perfume, and the little gold cross swinging out from her collar.
His breath began to feel trapped. He looked down at the forest stretching inland, a dense green scumble going on forever. He scanned without thinking for roads, rooftops, the gleam of cars, metal, weapons, but there were only trees. There were no people in this landscape. No weapons.
He took a long deliberate breath. At the bottom of his breath, deep inside his lungs, he felt a gritty scraping: sand. Trapped in his chest, rising and settling in sluggish swirls, clogging the airways. Sand was mineral, stone dust, it would never decompose, it could never be absorbed by his body. Iraq, inside him, forever. He wondered panickily if that were true. Everyone there had a cough.
Conrad looked away from the window, across the aisle. The Marines there were slumped in their seats, too, dead to the world, like Anderson. The thing was that Conrad didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to think about the sandstorms or the other Marines or anything else from over there, the rattle of machine guns, the stink of the shitters, the hot, smoky air, the closed faces of the people on the streets, he wanted none of those thoughts in his head, but what else was there to think about?
The thing was that he was tired of himself, tired of his thoughts, tired of the anxiety that permeated his brain like a bad smell. Being inside his head, just thinking at all, just being conscious was like walking across a minefield. At any minute something might detonate, hurling him into somewhere he didn’t want to be. He was sick of it. There was nowhere to go.
* * *
Conrad looked up from the book. His heart had begun racing. He looked around the plane: nothing, there was nothing to alarm him. In a way, that was worse, he was helpless. Anderson was still slumped beside him. Across the aisle were two sleeping Marines, legs askew, heads tipped sideways. Conrad was not on the streets of Ramadi but a commercial airline bound for Bangor, Maine. The airplane droned steadily, following the complicated hologram of international flight patterns. He was not in control here. There was nothing for him check, there was no reason for alarm, and so what was it? He felt a high choking presence inside his chest. His heart was still pounding, he wondered if this was evident. If other people could see his racing pulse, the anxiety flooding through him, the way alarm was rising up through his body to take him over.
He couldn’t imagine what lay ahead: civilian life seemed unthinkable. He couldn’t remember what it was like. The last time he’d been in the civilian world he’d been in college, but that was years ago, and everything was different. He’d no longer be in college, no longer in the Marines. He couldn’t think how to move on, it seemed like a cliff that he was approaching. Beyond was a dark drop.
He didn’t want to remember what lay behind him in Iraq. He couldn’t bear the images that rose up as soon as he closed his eyes. Rivera’s whispering. The dog, its ears flattened, tail curved between its legs. Again he felt the uneasy plummeting. The woman, holding up the basket, walking toward them. The girl in the doorway. The pattern on the wall.
The thing was to get away from all this, get the thoughts out of his head. That was the thing.
* * *
He should think about his parents and Claire. He should prepare himself to see them. Though the thing was that he couldn’t prepare himself, because he wasn’t the person they were expecting to meet. He felt an obligation to be the person they’d known, the one they were expecting, but he didn’t know how to change himself back. They wouldn’t want this new person, the one he now was, but he couldn’t remember what that other person was like. Even if he could remember, he couldn’t become him again.
Another problem: he couldn’t exactly remember what everyone looked like, his parents and his girlfriend. If Claire was his girlfriend. He wondered if this was part of what had happened in Iraq, and did it mean he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Was losing your memory, or part of your mind, some kind of PTSD symptom? He didn’t want to ask. Could you lose a part of your mind? That was all in the bleak broken wilderness beyond the cliff drop, ravines and rocks, what was wrong with his mind. …
Was this what it would be like? Would he keep on discovering things he couldn’t fix?…He couldn’t imagine talking to any of them. What would they say?
* * *
The plane was dropping fast now, through intermittent clouds. The window went suddenly dark, then bright again, the light flickering. The strobing flashes made Conrad uneasy, and his chest felt tight. He thought of the woman with the basket, the sudden bloom of flames against the windshield, and the noise blotting out the world, that silent echo that seemed to go through your body, though these were exactly the things he was trying not to think about. It was like having to watch a movie: the movie was inside his head, and he couldn’t stop it by closing his eyes. He had strategies, but he was never sure they’d work, or how long they’d last.
The plane slid suddenly into a dense layer of cloud, and the sound of the engine turned loud and urgent. The windows were closely sealed with grey. Conrad’s chest tightened further and he began to count backwards from ten. He could feel his heart, big pounding beats. He focused on the numbers, Nine, breath, eight, breath, seven, spacing them evenly. With each one he drew a deep slow breath. By the time he reached six the plane had passed through the cloud layer and the windows were no longer sealed. Conrad stared out at the drifting wisps of mist, the view below. More green forest, now closer, the texture of the trees becoming sharper and clearer. Everything seemed more dangerous the closer they drew to the ground. The plane’s racing descent seemed full of risk. He listened for gunfire: they shouldn’t be coming down like this, so obviously, so slowly, in broad daylight, with no defensive maneuvers. He drew long, measured breaths, counting slowly until the air was entirely clear of clouds. His heart was still pounding.
They were approaching the airport, making a long loop over Bangor. The landscape now was semi-urban: roofs, buildings, a grid of roads and highways. Tiny cars moved steadily along like markers in a game.
When the plane banked hard, heading for final approach, the roar of the engines became deafening. Conrad felt his heart respond, his pulse rising.
Anderson opened his eyes, closed his mouth, sat up.
“We landing, sir?”
Conrad nodded. He didn’t want to risk speaking.
Anderson rubbed at his face, his eyes, his pale rabbit’s lashes. Everyone around them was waking up, Marines were starting to talk and laugh, excited. Conrad’s heart thundered. He couldn’t speak.
The airport runways and buildings stretched out below them straight axial lines, like a mechanical drawing. The plane dropped rapidly and the long flat buildings, the dark tarmac, rose up alarmingly to meet it. The engines became louder, the pitch ascending toward some unbearable climax. The plane fell sickeningly toward the earth. There was a pounding inside his skull.
He could feel it coming: the moment in which you heard the sound. It was before anything had hit, when the air was full of ozone, the moment in which you understood that something was happening but not yet what. It was the moment that you knew in your body before you knew in your mind, the moment when you felt the sound, like a great silence taking you over, the shock wave rolling through your body, your heart and lungs, time stopping around you. Everything flying apart into fragments. That limitless radiant moment, glittering behind your eyelids, before you knew.
He was frozen and still, his muscles clenched. His palms were sweating. Inside he was huge and cavernous, and his heart was performing something monstrous and unnatural. Tears, horribly, brimmed at his eyelids. Some avalanche was poised, ready to break loose. He couldn’t stop it. Something was running riot through him, some cloudburst of panic and confusion, noise and smoke and terror. He was consumed by fear. It was sweeping through him, as though he’d been overtaken by fire, as though he were now rippling and radiant with flames. Somewhere he was screaming. Terror was blowing him apart.
He was counting and breathing, making his chest rise and fall, rise and fall, in, out, silently saying the numbers, Nine, he told himself desperately, breath, eight, spacing them evenly, breathing in, out, and then suddenly they were no longer over the runway but on it. The plane came down hard and fast, thundering roughly onto the tarmac, making the miraculous transfer from element to element, from air to earth, at a hundred miles an hour. Undecided, the plane then bounced, twice, up into the air, then settled finally on earth, transforming itself from something free-floating and weightless into something massive and ponderous, lumbering, ungainly.
As the plane settled onto the tarmac the cabin exploded with cheers. Relief flooded through Conrad, a wild wave of gratitude loosened him inside. Tears still threatened, but they were now from relief. It shamed him, but he was helpless before these towering gusts of feeling.
The plane raced down the runway, roaring and rattling. As they neared the end of the pavement the engine scream rose further, revving to a desperate, wild, unthinkable pitch. The plane braked hard, flinging everyone forward. An empty can ricocheted down the aisle. The plane slowed abruptly, a weird, unnatural deceleration, and came to a sudden rolling stop. Conrad was sweating, his body damp and hot inside his uniform.
The pilot’s voice came over the intercom. It sounded like God, deep and annunciatory. “Gentlemen, welcome home.”
The cabin erupted again into shouts and whistles.
“Oo-rah! Back in the USA!” The Marines stamped and hooted, clapping. Conrad heard it from a great distance, through the louder pounding in his ears. He was actually on fire – was that it? He felt stunned. He turned to Anderson. He was trying to breathe normally, and wondered how his face looked. He wondered if this showed.
“We made it,” Conrad said. He hoped he was grinning.
Anderson looked at him, sober. “You okay, sir?”
Conrad nodded. He was shaking. He didn’t dare lift his hand or speak. What he wanted was to lean back against the seat, close his eyes, and let this thing, whatever it was, roll through him, take him over, and close him down.
This piece is excerpted from Sparta, published by Sarah Crichton Books, 2013.