I walked into the Airport Diner, lovingly referred to by local kids as the APD, to meet Laura for a cup of coffee and the usual shared plate of home fries. This had been our spot, our teenagehood. The food was cheap and they never kicked us out. It was a kitschy but cozy place. Neon pink and blue lights lined the spot where the wall meets the ceiling. Mirrors at ends of the room let my old classmates see me enter without turning around.
It was about 11:30 on a Tuesday night during Christmas break. Kids I'd known since kindergarten were smoking and drinking coffee. Plastic-looking shortcakes and cream pies glided slowly in circles around the dessert display. The whole place hummed with neon lights.
I scanned the room for Laura and company, but only saw Eddie, lighting a new Marlboro with the butt of the old one, sitting in a giant cloud of smoke. He was alone. Coffee stains polka-dotted the turquoise Formica table trimmed in stainless steel. Little balled-up bits of paper napkin he'd strewn about mindlessly. His jaw jutted forward and was clenched tight. When I nodded in his direction as I explained to the hostess I'd be joining him, he was facing my way, but made no sign of recognition. It was as if he saw through me. I considered for a split second that if I found a table at the other end of the room he probably wouldn't even see me, but he looked helpless in a tough way and I couldn't ignore him.
I approached the table and put on my cheeriest smile. "Hey couuuuusin, what's up?" but all I got in response was a "hey" through the exhalation of smoke as he flipped aimlessly through his options in the jukebox mounted on the wall. A large, jolly waitress with too much makeup brought me a coffee, which I loaded up with cream and sugar, noticing that Eddie's was black. I shared a story about crazy Uncle Richard, hoping it would draw him out.
Without moving his jaw he said, "Huh, that's funny."
I asked if I could bum a cigarette. He pushed the pack across in my direction. As he lit his Limp Bizkit lighter for me he mumbled, "I can't believe I'm sharing my cigarettes with my little cousin - your father would murder me."
"We all grow up, don't we? Things change; we become what we never thought we would."
"You have no idea."
"I know how you feel about the war, and I am just not in the mood, ok?"
He cut me to the quick, but I said, "Just you and me - cousin to cousin. Remember when your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to save my Barbie dolls from evil villains? Pretend we're still those kids..."
He puffed on the cigarette and took a swig of coffee. His eyes were as empty and dark as his coffee, his complexion ruddy. Permanently scarred by Lord knows what. It seemed to me to represent what must lie beneath his skin-the pain that caused his face to contort in such strange ways. He would not make eye contact with me. I searched hard, my gaze darting all around his face. His did circles on the ceiling. Avoided.
We were silent. I finished my cigarette. He lit another and gestured to see if I'd like one as well. I declined. He inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, and exhaled as I waited uncomfortably. The last time we spent this much time alone together was when I was twelve and he fourteen. We were at a family reunion and were the only people over ten and under fifty. Then it had only been because we had no other option. Now I wasn't sure what had brought us together.
"You can't even imagine what it is like to be up in your guard post and see your friends at the gates giving the little kids from down the street candy. Crazy American stuff, Pop Rocks and shit. And then all of the sudden there's shots going off and the next thing you know your friends have been shot in the arm, the leg, the shoulder, and they're carrying these little kids inside. A couple of them died."
I didn't have anything to say to that, but he searched my face for a response. I think he needed to validate his experience. He needed me to believe it happened. It felt forced, but I told him, "That's awful. I can't even imagine." And he finished off another cigarette, again lighting the next with the butt of the current. I reached for the pack as he put it back down on the table top. Our hands bumped. He shrank back tensely. Clenched his fist. I grabbed the lighter from beside his clenched fist, being careful not to brush his hand this time. I concentrated on my cigarette, watching it crackle. I felt the smoke entering my mouth, my throat, my lungs. It burned, stung, and in my efforts to avoid my cousin's empty stare, I focused on the feeling. I imagined I could feel my cilia getting stopped up by tar. I thought I could feel my lungs dying. It was a relief.
"You know, the Army is the reason I started smoking."
It was as if he knew exactly what I was feeling and thinking. Maybe he wasn't as aloof as I thought.
"I used to smoke in high school, but when I signed up and started training I quit. I thought that's what they would want. How can you do all that running if your lungs are shot?"
He needed encouragement. I nodded to let him know I was with him.
"But then when I found out they were sending me to Iraq I started having all kinds of stress. I was jumpy. My heart was going crazy. I went to the doctor on the base about it. They told me they couldn't give me psychiatric meds or they'd have to discharge me. I said I didn't want to leave the Army. They said to start smoking, take my mind off things."
He was putting his cigarette out already. It was finished. I searched for conversation. I didn't want to talk about his time in Iraq, but I was not sure how to avoid it. I tried to be upbeat.
"So, your service is up in May, right? What's next? College? Culinary school? You always talked about being a chef."
"They've extended my time. I think I'm headed to Korea soon. Gotta go stand on the border and for a show of force, show Kim Jong Il what we're made of." He flexed his biceps. I don't think he knew he was doing it. He grinned. His demeanor had changed. "We'll teach that motherfucker to mess with us."
"Korea?" I said. "Really?"
"Come on, he's got nukes over there. He can't be trusted."
"So do we. Will it be war, do you think?"
"I dunno. Not for me. After a few months in Korea they're sending me back to Iraq for about a year and a half. And by then my time will be up. They can't keep me more than three years past my original end date."
"How do you feel about that?"
"I fuckin' hate it. I don't wanna be there again. I don't wanna do the things they make me do. Sit in a guard tower all day alone, hoping I won't see anyone get killed today. Talking myself out of shooting my own brains out with my Army issue gun. Listening to my mom cry on the phone when I call home."
"So why are you here all alone tonight instead of spending some quality time with the family?"
He chuckled to himself. He was being condescending, but I wouldn't let myself be offended. He had finished another cigarette and was reaching for the next. The way he shook the pack in one hand and made the cigarettes reach out like so many little round steps towards the sky reminded me of something from a 1950's Hollywood classic. So slick, so tough. He extended the pack for me first. I usually have a two-cigarette-per-evening limit, but I thought it might be the best thing I could do to kill a little of myself with him that night. Especially since he had just admitted to me that he thought about death - a lot.
I lit my cigarette and reached to put the lighter to the end of his when the door opened - Laura and the other friends I was supposed to be meeting had arrived. They had entered through the door behind me, but I saw them in the mirror on the wall in front of me. I brought my other hand in to block the bitter winter wind so the flame didn't go out, but my hand bumped into his. Eddie took the lighter from me quickly and tensely and lit his own cigarette. With the first puff he seemed to have sucked it down more than half way. I crossed the room to talk to my friends.
Laura said, "You didn't tell me your cousin is home! He looks like hell! And scary, too! Please don't invite him over here."
They are generally compassionate, but Eddie's appearance had changed and they were scared of him now. I looked at him from afar. Instead of looking sad, as he did up close, I realized they were right. He looked menacing.
"Don't worry," I said. "But I'm gonna smoke a few cigs with him and talk some more. I think he needs it."
He was still sitting there like concrete. Soulless. Colorless. Harsh and cold. His cigarette was sending up its last smoke signal from the ashtray on the table between us. I wished I knew what it was trying to tell me.
"I can't stand to be at home," he said. "Even being in this town is hard. But home is the worst."
"But you haven't seen your parents in months. Eddie, it must be killing your mother that you aren't at home. All she does is talk about you when you're gone - shows us your pictures, tells us your stories. It always ends in tears.
"That's part of the problem. Plus, I mean, nothing here has changed. Everyone is the same. The places look the same. . . I'm not the same. I can't pretend to be."
"Try explaining it to me a little better. I don't know what you mean."...Inhale.... Exhale... Inhale.... Exhale... Inhale....
"I don't know what I mean either. I smoke three packs a day. I can't sleep at night. Whenever I have a drink I black out and wake up the next morning looking like I must have been in a fist fight but not remembering a damn thing. They're going to make me spend three goddamned years in a war zone and still when I get out I won't have enough money or credit to buy a house or even a new car. So I'll have to move back home with my mother who cries over me all the goddamned day long."
I began thinking that his political leanings had changed since the last time we spoke. Three thousand American kids just like him had died since this war began. Over a hundred in the last month alone. Some were his friends. Things were escalating when they were supposed to be slowing down. My once conservative Republican cousin was now saying disparaging things about the war he and his Party had wanted. The War on Terror. The War of Terror. The War is Terror? I started feeling relieved that he'd "finally come around," though I was terrified that these experiences were what it took. And I knew he'd been sparing me all night, because I'm his little baby girl cousin who can't handle the gory truth. He has always protected me from others, even if he was picking on me himself. So if this is what he was telling me, what else has he seen? I made some of my usual progressive political comments which I am now so ashamed to have mentioned that I cannot recall them. I could see the pensive part of him go dry. I watched his sadness drain out of him as I lifted my feet up off the floor and crossed my legs, the fake leather seats squeaking below me.
"You can thank me for allowing you to say those things."
I'd been trying to keep things on the even keel for him but now I got defensive. I can only imagine the scrunching of my face, the furrow of my brow. I must have looked like a bigger, uglier version of the pretentious little girl who'd fought with him on the rowboat in the middle of the pond.
"Thank you? That's hardly necessary."
"Because. I. Do. My. Job, you can say things like that. It's me and my friends out there in the desert risking our lives for yuppie liberals like you to exercise your freedom of speech in order to trash talk and bad mouth everything we do and then you vote for people who want to take us away from our jobs."
"Eddie, that's not the way I feel at all. You told me just a few minutes ago that you didn't want to go back. I am supporting you the best way I know how."
"Well, I don't need that kind of support."
The chubby waitress filled our cups. Eddie chugged his immediately. I could see the thick, blue veins in his neck even more clearly as the heat reached his throat. He didn't say ouch or grunt or cuss. He closed his eyes slowly and opened them again. A pain he could control. A pain he understood. I knew the conversation was going nowhere, so I changed the topic to more lighthearted things. Eddie stared at me blankly as he lit another cigarette.
I am home this weekend to spend Easter with my family. My friend Dan's twenty-first birthday was just yesterday, so we were out celebrating tonight. We decide to follow up last call with some greasy eggs at the APD. Approaching the entrance from the parking lot I see the back of someone's buzz cut head sitting at a booth inside. His posture is stiff. His head surrounded by a cloud of smoke. I watch his shoulders heave with the inhalations and exhalations of smoke for a moment before I say, "I'm going to have to say hello to my cousin." Dan holds the door open for me and I step inside from the cold.
I approach Eddie's table slowly, remembering our last encounter here. I force a smile and lean in for a hug right away. He hugs back, but it is not warm. His elbows bend at right angles. He holds his breath. I fear my ribs will break. Worse yet, I think for a second that that's his intent. He makes no eye contact. This is our most awkward meeting yet.
I say, "I had no idea you were coming home this weekend - what a great surprise!"
Eddie has been in the Army for nearly the full five years for which he originally enlisted. His service should be up on May 15. I have been looking forward to this day since he told me he'd joined up.
"Yeah, well I'm getting shipped out again on May 9. Straight to Iraq."
"Oh, God, Eddie, that sucks. How long?"
"Two years. On the border between Iraq and Iran. We'll set up a fort with artillery capabilities. You know what that means don't you? At least I'll have the opportunity to make history. First KIA in the American-Iranian War."
As if taking a cue from his own paranoia and my terrified silence, he lights a cigarette and extends the pack to me. I decline. Instead I kiss him on the cheek as he shrinks away and leave to join Dan. This way is easier for both of us. I can find nothing else to say. He can only think about what looms ahead.
Amelia Jane Dietrich is a college student in Pennsylvania.