Kate was a Specialist in the Army, which was perfect for her, since Specialists don’t really specialize in anything. Even as a kid, Kate never had those snowflake fantasies—daydreams of being special or unique. She liked the idea of uniformity, of invisibility. It’s maybe what really appealed to her the most about enlisting: be all you can be, sure, but also be just like everyone else. Here was a profession in which going unnoticed could actually save her life.
Her initial deployment to Iraq was not met with much violence or hardship. It was grueling, yes, but Iraq was not Afghanistan. At the time, the Iraqis regarded the American troops with bullish skepticism.
She was one of two women in her unit “attached” for the seemingly sole purpose of searching Iraqi women for weapons, since it was against a cultural code of conduct for American men to do so. She felt uneasy about the things she did. She put her hands on these women, sometimes—more frequently than not—with the men in her unit watching. She’d pat them down, trying to avoid tracing the curves of their bodies; she’d start with the ankles and move to the arms, the hips, the knees. Every time she felt as though she had suction cups on her palms and fingers. Each touch took something from the woman, peeling something away.
So yes, she felt uneasy about the touching, but at times she thought, If this is the worst that happens, I can live with that. Yet sometimes when she touched the women she would think of Lily, of what Lily would say if she could see her. Lily—her first, and really only, love. Maybe Lily would find darkly amusing the irony of a closeted lesbian—closeted by the very institution that was making her do these things—groping women.
One night, nine months into her tour, Kate and her unit were dropped off in front of a home believed to house insurgents. The night was black and hot as tar. Kate’s CO went right for the door, kicking it in at the spot that made it fly off its hinges. The sergeant and the other men began their jacked-up, jarhead warnings, the deep-throated, one-way-or-another-we’re-gonna-get-ya admonitions that sounded vaguely like the vocals in a death metal song. Kate trailed behind, caught up as she usually was in the other soldiers’ wake.
The house had three women, what seemed like three generations: an older woman, a middle-aged woman, and a girl who couldn’t be older than twelve. Kate’s CO, the butt of his rifle in the neck of the one male in the house, ordered her to search the women. Kate stepped towards them and picked up the scent of ginger cookies, a smell she wasn’t at all prepared for: how good it smelled, how inviting. It was difficult to think about any kind of violence with such a warm smell wafting from the kitchen. She thought of her mother back home, who loved to bake petifores. As Kate put her hands on the older woman, the woman started sobbing, even grabbed at Kate’s arms. Kate smelled the ginger and the cinnamon and the flour on the woman’s hands as they passed in front of her, grabbing at Kate’s face. Kate had to hold her breath as she patted the woman down.
None of the women had anything on them, except for the scent of baking.
While Kate went to war, Lily went to college, to the University of Vermont. It was a world away from her hometown, Rolesville, a suburb near Raleigh, North Carolina, which was a nothing place, neither liberal nor conservative, somehow both repellant and consuming. Those who left never came back, and those who stayed stayed forever.
She left, though, and the beauty of UV’s campus, especially in autumn, made her never want to go home. Really, Rolesville didn’t even feel like home anymore.
At college she joined something called the Progressive Students Union. It was a group of a dozen or so students, whose preoccupations included reducing the university’s carbon footprint, getting organic produce in the cafeteria, and championing LGBT rights on campus. They also spent a lot of time protesting the war in Iraq, something of a guilty pleasure for Lily. Oh, it was so easy to hate the war—so easy to hate the country’s obsession with it. She hated Dubya and his search for dubya-em-dees.
Protesting the war almost made her forget how lovesick she really was.
Three months after the incident with the ginger cookies, Kate was heading home. Hooome. It was one of those words that seemed more and more nonsensical with each repetition. Semantic satiation, one of the other soldiers in her company had said: the phrase for when something loses meaning the more it’s repeated aloud. The soldier who’d said this had been drunk one night on Iraqi hooch and someone else had said the word “terrorism.” He spent the next half hour abstractedly repeating the word until everyone else in the room could see the word and its letters floating in the air. Kate had asked, “How do you know that?” The soldier, still moony, told her how his girlfriend cheated on him but he couldn’t bring himself to break up with her. So one night he decided to say her name out loud over and over again; the more ridiculous her name sounded, the more he fell out of love with her. The other soldiers in the company laughed at him, but Kate thought there was something poetic about what he said.
Kate thought about semantic satiation again the day she left Iraq. Just before she boarded the plane she’d met with a psychologist to get approval for leave. He spent most of their session talking about “habituation.” What that means, the psychologist had said, is that Kate had undoubtedly experienced things in the theater of war that she’d want to forget, things that might mess her up if she thought about them. Don’t try to forget, the psychologist advised. Let them mess you up for a while. It’s like if someone says, Hey, try not to think of a pink elephant—it’s impossible not to think of a pink elephant. Habituation was all about focusing on that pink elephant, thinking about that pink elephant until the image dissipated, became innocuous.
That all sounded dubious to Kate at the time, and her first few weeks at home did nothing to counteract her initial skepticism. She had trouble sleeping. The interruptions weren’t really dreams so much as echoes. Echoes of the time a suicide bomber walked up to their mess tent and started cursing and casting his incantations and stomping his foot in frustration because he couldn’t trigger his vest. Echoes of the day her company saw a column of smoke billowing up towards the sky and realized that it was the location of one of their FOBs. Echoes of the story of a woman in another company who’d gotten pregnant just so she could go home and get the hell out of Dodge. Echoes of all the women she and the other Specialist had frisked, and echoes of the night with the women and the ginger cookies. The smell of ginger followed her around for virtually the rest of her deployment, and followed her all the way back to North Carolina. She could sometimes feel the woman’s grip as well, like a phantom limb, could sometimes see the invisible indenture of the woman’s fingers on her arm.
In the interest of semantic satiation and pink elephants and habituation and all that other noise, Kate began strolling through the supermarket. She’d smell the fresh ginger, sprinkle cinnamon on the back of her hand and sniff it off, almost as if she was doing a line of coke.
She was in the act of sniffing cinnamon one day when a girl’s voice from behind her said, “Ummm,” drawing out the mmm as if she was humming a song.
If there had been one gaze Kate did not want to meet, one person she did not want to see while she was home, it was Lily’s. And yet, this was precisely the gaze she met upon turning around.
They hugged one another hello. Their hold was tenuous. Lily remembered well what it was like to be in Kate’s embrace: the safety, the warmth. But she remembered maybe more vividly what it was like to feel the absence of Kate’s embrace.
“How are you?” Lily asked. “This is so weird.”
Kate rubbed the back of her hand against her nose, sniffed, like she had a cold. “Fine,” she offered.
“Are you just getting back?”
“I’ve been back for a few weeks, yeah.”
“Wow,” Lily said. “Yikes.”
“Well, you know.” Lily wrinkled her forehead. “I’m just glad you’re okay,” she said.
They drifted aimlessly through the aisles of the supermarket. If they had been there to buy anything specific, then they both had forgotten what those things were.
Later in the parking lot, Lily asked if Kate wanted to grab lunch one day.
Kate looked down at the packages Lily was holding. The handles of the plastic bags had twisted a few times around Lily’s wrist, making the skin around the plastic puffy and red. “Lunch?” Kate said.
Kate hardly ever got on with other girls, least of all her older sister Colby. Their father was a Marine, and the rooms of their house pulsated with ooh-rah reverberations, vociferous and unwavering. Colby had been so named because their father hoped for a boy, and when a sonogram revealed otherwise, they shrugged and went with it anyway. Three years later Kate was born. Colby resented Kate almost immediately; not only was Kate her replacement, but she had been born with a name that more accurately reflected her gender.
But Kate was daddy’s little soldier. Whereas Colby, perhaps bucking against the neutrality of her name, set lavish tea parties for her Barbies, Kate smashed her G.I. Joe figures together, a development their father took as mana from heaven. West Point educated and Vietnam hardened, their father would keep Kate up late into the night as he regaled her with stories of battle—real battle, stripped of fairy tale magic, but no less grand.
Kate had emerged as the favorite, and Colby set about garnering her parents’ attention in other ways. Boys with loud muscle cars. Boys who reeked of weed. Black boys. Colby was annoyed when she discovered Kate was a lesbian; Kate had also surpassed Colby in furtive matters of the heart.
Kate and Lily started hanging out during their freshman year of high school. They had both signed up to play on the JV soccer team, Kate as the goalie, of course, and Lily as a midfielder. Kate didn’t know how hard it would be to stand still for so long. Lily didn’t want to play defense, and she didn’t want to play offense, but she also didn’t know how hard it would be to be stuck in the middle. They caught each other’s gaze from time to time, either on the field or in the hallways at school. The bus ride to their first away game unfolded in a haze of anxious bliss. Their knees knocked together as the bus hit a bump.
Their love was incognito. Two girls didn’t really fall in love with each other in their town—in their state, even—but this in some ways made it sweeter; each kiss came with the power of secrecy, the unassailability of the clandestine. Each time their hands touched in public was an occasion for uproar, like they were pulling one over on the world.
They were, for perhaps the first time in their lives, happy. It was a happiness that they didn’t know was possible, a happiness augmented by the very fact they hadn’t thought it was possible.
Kate, somewhat shy and otherwise amiably laconic, glided through the days with a smile permanently affixed. That was how Colby knew. Colby whispered, in that sisterly hectoring way, “I know about you and Lily.”
Kate said, “Please don’t tell dad.”
And Colby didn’t. It would have been the ultimate trump card. Her mother and father would have surely refocused their affectionate energy. But Kate had said, Please don’t tell dad, and Colby realized that Kate, perfect-soldier-daughter Kate, was more afraid of their father precisely because she was his favorite. She had so much to lose.
Colby left home at eighteen. She moved to Portland. “Get out,” she had said to Kate the night before she left. “While you can.”
Lily shared Colby’s desire to flee. She didn’t want to be stuck in the suburbs of North Carolina; she found even the prospect of remaining within state lines to be soul-crushing. She dreamed of going away to college, of being in another state, both geographically and spiritually. She dreamed of moving to San Francisco, or maybe Portland like Colby, somewhere they wouldn’t have to fight or hide. They would buy only organic produce. They would get a cat and name it Birdie.
Lily’s voice as she talked about their future together hummed mellifluously in Kate’s ear, but the voice of Kate’s father resounded like a war drum.
Kate made okay grades. While she didn’t outright dislike school, she found she drifted down the hallways in a haze of indifference. She felt as though school would never fulfill her, especially when there was a war going on.
In addition to growing up hearing tales of “true heroism,” Kate also grew up with a mother who was demure in every other way except when it came to voicing anxieties over money. Kate’s family were thoroughly middle class: not poor, but certainly not wealthy. Kate’s mother had been a military wife for most of her life. She’d never gone to college and held only-part time jobs. While Kate’s father’s pension was substantial, as the prospect of Kate going to college loomed, the family’s tenuous financial situation put everyone on edge. At school, Kate overheard some of the kids talking about enlisting. This was, after all, just after 9/11. As much as Kate could gather, despite the galvanic euphoria of revenge, her classmates’ interest in enlisting came from either the resignation that they would never go to college or from the slightly more sanguine resignation that they needed the Army to pay for college.
When Kate first brought up the idea of enlistment to Lily, Lily guffawed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s just something I’m thinking about.”
Lily narrowed her eyes. “What about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
“I won’t tell if they don’t ask. That’s how it works.”
“I don’t understand. You would rather ignore your identity and fight in a war?”
“Enlisting isn’t just about fighting.”
“You sound just like your dad.”
“You want to go away to college anyway. What’s the difference?”
“For one, you could get killed.”
She and Lily fought every day: in parking lots, at the movie theater, in their bedrooms. Kate said she would apply to some local colleges just to keep her options open. It was a fiction she kept up until Lily received her acceptance letters.
“Maybe I’m waitlisted,” Kate said.
“You didn’t even apply, did you?”
“I can’t picture myself in the classroom anymore.”
“But you can picture yourself in the middle of a desert? You can picture yourself murdering other human beings?”
“That’s so dramatic.”
Lily inhaled sharply, as if she were taking one last desperate drag on a cigarette. “You can picture yourself without me?”
“It’s not like that.”
Kate shipped off for 10-week basic training suspecting she’d never find happiness again—or at least suspecting that she didn’t deserve happiness. This, she thought, was the cost of serving.
And now it was a year later. Kate met Lily for coffee at the Starbucks inside Barnes and Noble, which was itself inside a mall. Kate had to drive under an overpass in order to get there—an overpass where, before she had returned home from Iraq, a kid had jumped and killed himself. Kate winced as she drove under, nearly closing her eyes completely. It lasted only fifteen seconds, but Kate swore she could feel something fall onto the roof of her car, both and heavy and invisible. FIDO, she thought. Fuck it, drive on. And then it was over. She emerged on the other side.
On the way to the mall, in her own car, Lily listened to the only album she and Kate could ever agree on: the soundtrack to Mulan. Kate did not really care about music—who didn’t care about music?—but she did love film scores. While Lily had bopped her head to the radio hits, Kate zoned out to John Williams’s score for Saving Private Ryan. The Mulan soundtrack was a happy middle-ground: it came with both Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestral score and actual songs, like Stevie Wonder’s “True to Your Heart.”
Kate got to Starbucks before Lily. She approached the girl behind the counter, an artsy looking girl with glasses whose name tag read “Aimee,” those extra e’s like a child swinging, obnoxious in its happiness. Kate ordered a decaf tea.
Lily arrived a few minutes later and ordered an iced latte. Kate asked her about school. How to talk about school, Lily wondered, in the context of war? The truth was that she found college to be a bit like a battlefield, violent in the way it decimated her small-town consciousness. How to tell a soldier that sitting in a lecture hall was a different kind of baptism-by-fire.
“Nothing feels the same,” Lily said. “I’ve always hated this place, as you know, but it was always home. But now I feel untethered from it.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I came home for Christmas break and could barely talk to my parents and my brothers. Even when I was talking about my experiences, they looked at me like I was a pod-person. Or they just didn’t care.”
While talking about college, Lily took care to mention her involvement in protesting the war.
“I wasn’t protesting you,” Lily said. She brought her voice low, hushed and beseeching. “I was protesting the institution that took you away. Anger and heartbreak are two different things.”
“Heartbreak?” Kate said. Maybe it was true, but it sounded so extreme. “I don’t want to do this here.”
“Can you tell me about it, at least? I have all these ideas about it. I’d rather hear it from someone who’s been over there. Did you find the WMDs yet?”
“What’s there to tell? There were a lot of days when nothing happened. And then there were FUBAR days. I don’t know what to say.”
Lily let out a little laugh through her nose.
Kate asked, “Wait, do you know what FUBAR means?”
Kate cleared her throat. She was taken aback. It wasn’t as though she coveted the Army’s brutish grunt lingo, but the idea of part of the war reaching Lily here at home was unnerving.
“Kate?” Lily said.
Instead of answering Kate looked down. She hadn’t realized she was twisting her coffee cup around and around, so much that the tea in it had spilled and formed little puddles on the table in front of Lily.
In Iraq Kate had bought a handful of wooden camels from a local kid near their operating base. Everyone in her company bought some, and they’d all shared a laugh about “stimulating the local economy” and “tourism.”
“Maybe we are tourists,” one of the soldiers had said. “Think about it.”
“Bro,” one of the others said. “That’s just dumb.”
It made a certain kind of sense to Kate. They’d operated as ghosts, as tangible ghosts. They were ghosts who, instead of passing through walls, smashed through them.
Kate brought all of the camels back and gave them away—to her parents, her grandparents, her neighbors. It was a convenient way of dodging questions about Iraq. What was it like to be in constant fear of death? Here, take a wooden camel.
Lily laughed when Kate gave her a camel. “I didn’t think people in the Army brought back souvenirs. It’s not like a vacation.”
“It’s kind of a joke, I guess,” Kate said.
Lily did seem to find it funny, eventually. She always was good-humored. Her genuine gaiety made Kate happy, less ashamed of certain things she’d done. Lily’s smile felt like a cool spot on a pillow during a hot night. All the nights since Kate had been back had certainly been hot.
Lily invited Kate over to go swimming in her family pool. It felt like an eternity since Kate had been in Lily’s backyard. It had been renovated, improved. Lily explained that they converted the pool in to a saltwater pool, which Kate hadn’t known even existed. Instead of chlorine, Lily explained, the pool was treated with salt. “It’s better of your skin, and your hair,” Lily said. Kate pinched the ends of her ponytail, rolling the dry strands with her fingertips.
They sat by the pool almost all day, reclining in lounge chairs, listening to the radio. Kate didn’t own a bathing suit so she wore a sports bra and her old soccer shorts.
They both thought, Would this have been their life? If Kate hadn’t deployed, if Lily hadn’t gone to Vermont—would this have been it?
For one thing, their lounge chairs would have been pushed closer together; presently there was a demilitarized zone between them.
One of the men in Kate’s unit had asked if she had anybody back home. Kate told him no. He said, “Maybe that’s for the best. When you’re in the service, the world gets split into those who go and those who stay. If you’re the one who goes, there’s no more relating to the one who stays.” Yet both Kate and Lily had been the ones who went, albeit in separate ways.
“Hey,” Lily said, looking up from her phone. “Do you want to go to a party?”
“We don’t have to. Just some friends—ones I made when we broke up.”
Kate looked out at the blue expanse of the pool. There were small waves, even in the stillness. “Sure.”
“You wanted to know what college was like,” Lily said. “Sometimes it’s sitting around until someone asks you if you want to get drunk.”
Lily appeared unflappable in her happiness and it made Kate happy to be a part of this happiness. It always had made Kate happy. One of the worst parts about breaking up with Lily was that she had upset Lily so much. In watching Lily cry, Kate felt as if she were depriving the world of some great joy.
“This is my friend Kate,” Lily said, to a boy named Sean. “She just got back from Iraq!”
Kate shook his hand.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “Thank you for your service, and all that.”
Kate had forgotten—or never really learned—the correct response, so she just nodded, her mouth being pulled, as if by some external force, into a smile.
“Pretty badass,” Sean said.
Lily excused herself to go find the host of the party, who was in the kitchen doing shots. From where Kate was standing, she could see Lily inside the kitchen, and watched as Lily greeted her friend by smacking the girl’s ponytail.
Sean said, “I’m a huge Medal of Honor fan. I have a lot of respect for you guys. Mad respect.”
“So what was it like? Being over there? Fighting, shooting.”
“I don’t know,” Kate said, which was more or less true. All things considered, the war hadn’t messed Kate up the way it had other soldiers. She’d heard stories and she knew that people back home had heard stories. In some ways she felt just as guilty for what hadn’t happened to her in Iraq as for what had. Basically: not all that much happened to her. She was part of the initial push into Iraq, and their mission, at least how it was laid out to them, was to keep the peace as best they could. No one in her company was blown up by a roadside bomb. No one she knew died, or was maimed in any serious way. So yeah, not much had really happened to her. Hell, she was what happened to them.
She didn’t say all this to Sean. It wouldn’t have made sense. Being a soldier really only made sense to other soldiers and being a soldier returning home made sense to no one—soldier included.
So Sean had asked what it was like.
What was it like?
Kate looked around the room. A row of vodka bottles stood up like someone was about to stage target practice. A tiny silver Heineken keg sat in the corner like an IED hidden in plain sight. And then there was Lily on the other side of the room, laughing at something, playfully patting the arm of the girl who was hosting the party. What was it like? It was like this. Lily’s fingers hitting the girl’s arm in slow motion, the sound of it—of course, there was no sound, or at least none that Kate could hear—like drumsticks banging on a floor-tom.
Kate and Lily left the party around one in the morning and drove back to Lily’s house. Kate followed Lily into the house and crept upstairs towards Lily’s bedroom. It was the site of their break up, and walking into it now felt as though she was standing in the center of some theater of shame. The bedroom looked so unfamiliar. Gone were the music posters and photographs that had previously adorned the walls. Even the wallpaper itself was a different color. Lily explained that she had taken many of her things to school with her and that her parents had repainted. The bed, at least, was the same, and being the only familiar thing in the room, Kate took a seat upon it.
Lily sat next to Kate and sighed. Kate ran the palms of her hands up and down her thighs, burning the skin of her palms from the friction. Lily grabbed one of Kate’s hands to stop her.
“Sorry,” Kate said. “It’s strange being here. I don’t recognize anything. I’m not sure if it’s the place that’s changed or if it’s me that’s changed.”
“I feel the same way.”
“It can’t possibly be the same.”
Tell me, Lily wanted to say.
Tell her, Kate thought.
But the past was incommunicable.
Through everything, Kate wanted so badly to kiss Lily. But she saw that Lily was smiling now, and thus Kate did not want to cover that smile with her own lips. It would be like placing her hand over a light, like cupping her hand around a candle and snuffing it out.
And then Kate was back in Iraq for her second tour. Lily watched the news with renewed interest from Vermont, from her dorm’s common room. The landscape of the war had changed. Now there was a new resentment of American soldiers, the evolution of apathy into antipathy.
It became too depressing to watch or think about. So she didn’t. She met someone, a boy from the Progressive Students Union, who wanted to be an investigative journalist, who listened to music that had lyrics. At the end of the year they got an apartment together in Vermont.
She had frequent nightmares, both when she was asleep and when she was awake, of soldiers in their class A uniforms ringing the doorbell of Kate’s family, Kate’s mother in tears, a batch of petifores burning in the oven, Kate’s father retreating into the emotional trench he’d been digging for so long, Colby’s young daughter yearning for an aunt she’d never know. Lily often shook from this litany of images feeling more angry than heartbroken. It was easier to be angry than heartbroken. And sometimes she would shake from these dreams feeling destroyed, as if she’d been blown up alongside Kate. It was a grief that physically hurt. She imagined returning to Rolesville, that suburb in North Carolina, the place that had once felt like home, the place that both she and Kate had left, the place to which neither of them would return.