From Fallujah to Chili's: A reservist goes back to work
By Dario DiBattista
It's cold in here. Cold and casual. The consumers - we call them guests - squeeze into their booths (the especially large ones we put at tables) and low light comforts them all. "Make yourself at home," we say. We wear dark shirts like shadows so we don't impose ourselves on their dining experience.
Our guests are uncouth and shallow. They demand their Cokes like IVs for salvation. When they need more drip, they look at me and point at their glasses. "Hey chief, get me another Coke, will ya! Can't you see my glass is empty?" A few months ago, I would have slammed the butt of my rifle in their faces for such insolence. I am not a Chief, I am a Lance Corporal and you know nothing of where I have just been. Today, I smile and say, "No problem, sir." Twelve thousand miles away, an IED goes off, another soldier dies in combat trauma, and no one here cares. I think of the young Iraqi boy who lost his hands to insurgent axes because he sold us Americans soda.
Fat cows; these people delight themselves with treats most Iraqi children cannot even fathom. They swallow shots and stab at sweets and sift through the vegetables on their plates to only eat the best red meat. "Yum," they say, "this food is so good."
None of them have the same desperation in their eyes as me.
At the restaurant, right now is the highlight of our guests's week. Monday through Friday, for eight hours a day, they had to dress up, be polite to the boss and look busy behind something light and digital - how tough for them.
None of them carried a weapon instead of a Personal Digital Assistant. None of them listened to wind-tossed dog tags clanking against the rifle, boots and helmet memorial of a newly killed Marine. None of them picked up the body parts of both strangers and friends: a tossed salad served by suicide bombings.
It's March 2005; I've only been back home from my second tour for about four months and I'm heartbroken and poor and not mentally well. It's been over two months since my year-long orders to active duty ended. The military's finance system has yet to sign off on the thousands of dollars they owe me. So I'm forced to work when I'm barely capable of basic existence. On my days off, I'm too depressed to move. On my couch, I watch the days turn to darkness through the slits in the patio blinds; and when it's dark I'll finally rise to go get wasted.
I loved someone once. And she loved me. She wrote me daily in Iraq and drew me pictures. She scribbled hearts under her name and marked the envelopes with lipstick. We used to work at the same store. Now that I'm home again though, I've become an ugly man - filled with rage and sorrow, prone to excessive self-medication. I scared her away. I show up to a different Chili's now; it's too hard for me to face my failures.
I see her in the crowd tonight. The pony-tail of her bright blond hair eludes me like a firefly in this biting darkness.
I did see her; where did you go?
Who are these women who wear your posture but not your face?
"Where did you go?" I want to scream. I often forget that I don't work at the same Chili's as her anymore, though inevitably I dwell on it for the duration of every shift.
Our song comes on, played from the rafters above: Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" (she had red hair when we met). My chest pumps like my blood is sap. I am barely alive and definitely dying.
Because every Chili's plays the same music, I know that where she is working on this very same night, at this very same time, she hears the same song. And I can only hope she feels an inkling of the pain that I do.
Somehow, I must focus on my job. I must give good and courteous service. I need our guest's money; although I just wish everyone, especially me, was dead.
To make them comfortable, I wear my smile like a cloak and hide what is in my heart.
When these people go home, I will put away my smile and go to the bar. The only people I will talk to are women who look like or remind me of her. All fireflies produce the same light, after all. Don't they?
It is cold and casual here. When I go to the bar tonight, it will be time to burn.
DiBattista is an Iraq War veteran who is in The Johns Hopkins University Master of the Arts in Writing Program. He is seeking publication of his memoir, "Go Now, You Are Forgiven: A Memoir of Love and War," from which this blog post is adapted. His literary nonfiction or poems have appeared in The New York Times, World Hum Online Travel Magazine and The Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences Magazine. DiBattista is also a featured blogger for www.notalone.com, a resource website for returning veterans impacted by combat stress and PTSD.
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