(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Memento Mori

Much to my chagrin, my roommates have renewed their fascination with Jersey Shore. Along with Rivera and Morales, they have been watching a string of successive episodes for the last couple of hours. I am not certain why this show evokes such a distinct sense of disgust. Perhaps it is because the cast is paid to do nothing but get drunk and engage in inane, operatic altercations. There is no message or value of any kind, and I am worried that this behavior is indicative of an entire generation. This must be the old man in me emerging. Soon I’ll be shaking my fist and yelling at teenagers to turn down their music and get off my lawn. If I had a lawn. Currently, two of the black-haired, big-breasted girls are sitting in a confessional and bitching about one of the other black-haired, big-breasted girls in their aggravating, nasal Long-Island accents.

“I want to chop both of their heads off,” I say.

“Why?” Rivera asks.

“Because they are annoying and serve no purpose.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to chop their heads off with a machete. That would be too messy, take too long. I want to do it with a sword, like a katana.”

Rivera is smiling. Morales looks at me with a blank expression. Raneo and Mies aren’t paying attention; they are fixated on the television.

“And not just any katana, but like the best katana ever made,” I continue. “I’ll fly to Japan and meet with the Swordmaster. We’re dressed in those ceremonial robes, and while he’s pounding the steel over the forge, I am meditating with my legs crossed. He hands me the sword in a solemn, ritual manner. We bow to each other. Then I come from out of nowhere, like fall from the sky, and cut their heads off with one swift stroke.”

I pantomime swinging the sword and make a ninja battle noise.

“Shit,” Rivera says.

My dreams are lucid in the desert. Though I still can’t remember them. I have rarely been able to recall my dreams. Normally, I wake up with the awareness of a person or place, or with the sense of an emotional response. I read online that you have to consciously make an effort to remember the contents of your dreams. One website suggests vocalizing your intention to remember and keeping a journal nearby so that you can write everything down the instant you wake up. I try this without success.

I wake with the impression of a woman. I know her in the dream, but awake I am not sure who she is. There is no image, just the inkling of her.

I’ve slept until fourteen hundred. There is nothing going on today, but I still feel like a piece of shit. I start to tidy up my area, folding clothes, sorting dirty laundry. Raneo is packing his duffel bag and calling out each item for Mies to write down. We have until the twentieth to pack our B bags and turn them in to be loaded into the conex before it is sealed and shipped. Nobody is sure if it is going to Kuwait or back to Hood ahead of us. We’re only allowed to keep our ruck, assault pack, and one duffel.

“Boonie cap,” Raneo says.

“Check,” says Mies.

“Gore-Tex and wet weather gear.”

“You know, it might rain in Kuwait,” I say.

“So?”

“So you might need that.”

“We don’t wear wet weather gear.”

“I’m just saying.”

“You know why we don’t wear wet weather gear?” Mies says.

“Because you’re a punk-ass bitch if you do,” I say.

“Close enough. I was going to say because we’re hard.”

“Right. We’re fucking hard,” I say. “And we’re water resistant like mallards. Like angry, belligerent mallards.”

Mies has no reply to this. Raneo keeps packing.

“A mallard is a duck.”

“I know.”

“I thought you would, because you probably shoot them.”

“Yeah.”

I walk to the gym to feel productive. Someone’s dog is running on the treadmill. Everyone seems very entertained. I put in forty-five minutes on the stationary bike, glancing over at the dog every now and then. Every time I see a dog over here, it reminds me of Baron, and I feel a twinge of guilt. The dog is clearly having a great time, but she’s panting heavily and her tongue is distended. I wave at the clerk sitting at the front desk, make a motion with my hand like drinking water, and point at the dog. The clerk just smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. I try again, holding up my water bottle. I point at the water bottle and then point at the dog. The clerk smiles again and nods his head, then goes back to his magazine. Asshole.

I finish up, head back to the CHU, and take a shower. I’m sitting on my bunk when the door flies open and Feakes barges into the room.

“What’s your stance on abortion?” he says.

For a beat, I’m unable to respond. This is not a question you expect to be thrown at you whilst casually checking your email.

“I don’t give a shit.”

“So . . . you’re pro choice?”

“I suppose so.”

Feakes stands motionless for several seconds, by all appearances deep in thought.

“Why do you ask?”

“My brother is doing a life walk and—” he trails off mid sentence, pursing his lips. He turns to go, turns back, then turns to go again, finally deciding on a direction.

* * *

We arrive at Fort Hood in late June 2010. There are six of us from Airborne Holdover, including Catherman, who was in my Basic Training company at Benning. A soldier from Reception Battalion picks us up at the Killeen Airport and drives us to the Copeland Soldier Center to sign in, then to the reception barracks. It’s Thursday evening before a four-day weekend, and we won’t begin in-processing until Tuesday. We drop our gear in our assigned rooms and walk together to the Burger King.

Some of the other guys have friends or relatives in central Texas that they link up with for the weekend, but I spend the four days cloistered in my barracks room. The only excursions I make outside are to the shopette and to the AT&T store in Killeen—a forty-dollar cab ride each way—to replace my phone that was destroyed during a thunderstorm at Benning. I play backgammon on my new phone, repeatedly watch the same eight or nine movies on my portable dvd player, and sleep. My diet consists of the healthiest food I can find at the shopette, primarily pop tarts, pretzels, and heat-lamp chicken sandwiches.

Tuesday morning we begin in-processing: a week-long series of finance and housing briefs, medical screenings, and a variety of mundane paperwork. The end of each day is punctuated by the First Sergeant’s safety brief. It is not brief. He has it honed down to a precise routine, revised and refined, no doubt, over several years of delivery. He puffs out his chest and strides up and down the aisle, pausing deliberately after each corny joke or one-liner. A typical safety brief involves a slew of warnings against bad behavior that most people would consider common sense, but with which many soldiers apparently have difficulty. Don’t drive under the influence. Don’t beat your spouse. Don’t beat your children. Don’t do drugs. Don’t have unprotected sex.

“Wear a vest,” First Sergeant says. “You don’t want that gonaherpesyphilaids.”

This is definitely one facet of the Army that I can do without: being treated like a mentally-retarded child. There is a balding and bespectacled Sergeant First Class who walks the reception barracks nightly, checking doors to make certain they are locked. He finds our door unlocked at least twice.

“What’s wrong with this picture, Specialist?” he snaps at me.

“I don’t know, Sergeant.”

“This door is unsecured. What’s to stop me from coming in here and raping you?”

“Umm.”

He proceeds to relate a disturbing and supposedly recent story about a soldier getting raped in his barracks room, not far from the exact spot on which we are currently standing. Evidently, male-on-male rape is a rampant concern at Fort Hood.

“You make sure this door is secure at all times.”

“Roger, Sergeant.”

Paperwork complete, we spend Friday waiting to be picked up by our respective units. A van arrives around fifteen hundred and shuttles us to Second Brigade headquarters, where we learn we are to be assigned to First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment. At Battalion, five of us are split between the two infantry companies. Catherman and I go to Bravo. The other guys go to Alpha. It’s nearly seventeen hundred before we are standing at parade rest outside the Bravo Company CP. The training room NCOs are not pleased. They were about to go home for the weekend, and now they have two new joes that need sorting out. I explain that we have been sitting around all day, and brigade did not come to get us until late afternoon. But somehow we are still blamed for our late arrival. They tell us we will both be joining second platoon, then drive us to barracks management to receive our housing assignments. First call on Monday, we are told, is zero one hundred hours. Bravo Company is going to the field for a week.

At zero one thirty on Monday morning, I am sorting through a pile of field equipment on loan from Staff Sergeant Dotson, one of the second platoon squad leaders. Due to the fact Catherman and I are newly arrived, we have not made it to the Central Issue Facility to sign for our basic load equipment. I stuff Sergeant Dotson’s gear into a borrowed ruck and line up at the armsroom to check out my weapon. Before long, we’re packing into school buses and bound for Owl Creek Assault Course, a training range on north Fort Hood Reservation.

We set up our hooches in the woods, tying off ponchos to tree limbs to create what limited overhead cover we can. The exercise consists of numerous iterations of team and squad assaults on a fixed fortification, in this case a sandbag bunker on top of a low hill. Our task is to move under cover to the objective and assault up the hill using successive bounding. This means half the team provides suppressive fire while the other half moves forward, leapfrogging towards the target. Our team does a satisfactory job, considering half of us are brand new. I’m struggling the entire time with my k-pot. Sergeant Dotson is one of the few men in the company bigger than I am, and his extra-large helmet keeps slipping forward on my head and blocking my field of vision.

Every night it rains mercilessly. Every morning we wake up in an ocean of mud. And by eleven it is one hundred and fifteen degrees. I change my socks each day, but can’t keep my boots dry.

The company packs up late on Thursday, and we bus back to the CP. Before we can leave for the holiday weekend, we need to clean weapons. Without warning, a handful of NCOs are screaming at us to hurry up. I clean for about fifteen minutes, then a sergeant inspects my weapon and declares its state of cleanliness as dogshit. Then I’m outside getting frantically smoked in the mud—flutter kicks, sandbag pushups, low crawling and rolling in the sludge. Then it’s hurry the fuck up and get back inside and clean your weapon, which becomes progressively more difficult the more mud you have on your hands. Then I’m outside again. This goes on for hours.

It is after one in the morning when I finally get back to my room, every inch of me caked in slime and dirt. I drop my gear in a heap in the corner of the room and strip off by boots. Both feet are bloated and wrinkled, painful to the touch. I am half expecting the skin to just peel off in a single slab. My soles look like the rotting flesh of a cadaver that has been floating in seawater for days. Swollen, corpse-white, nibbled-on by sardines. I take a picture with my phone for posterity.

* * *

September 18th, 2011. I wake abruptly a few minutes after nine. Pressley is standing in the room. He tells me to get dressed quickly and meet behind the TOC for a company formation. As we make our way over from the LSA, he informs me that a soldier died this morning. Once we are formed up, the CO calls us in to a huddle and confirms the report. No one knows the full details yet, but word is that his weapon might have discharged due to a cook-off.

He was a member of Green Platoon from Delta Company. Green Platoon is attached to Bravo for the duration of the deployment. I did not know him personally.

We are advised not to discuss the matter until the family has been notified through proper military channels. The ramp ceremony will be sometime later in the day, so we are on standby for the time being. The company falls back in, and First Sergeant releases us back to our CHUs.

There is nothing. No emotional response that I can detect, though I try to summon it. I tell myself it would be different had we known each other. All I know is this: it is a stupid and senseless waste, further proof of the random tragic folly of the universe. We are one month away from escaping this shithole forever. The insurgents can’t kill us despite their best efforts. And this soldier dies because of an arbitrary mishap. Why him? Why anybody? He had a wife and five children. Why does chance opt to take this man instead of the childless, wifeless, joyless misanthrope?

Millersmith joins me outside the CHU for a cigarette. I guess he wants to talk about it. Millersmith likes to talk. He’s from Arkansas or Missouri, I think. He has some college. His parents are missionaries. He’s going on about what details he has heard from Green Platoon, about how the .50 cal round supposedly went through his vest and traveled up his chest plate and entered his neck. There is no telling at this point what is fact and what is rumor.

“It just sucks, man,” he says.

“It’s a shitty way to die, especially when we’re so close to getting out of here.”

“Yeah. It’s like with the MRAPs, all those corners and points. You’ve seen the bars that stick out on the driver side? If the vehicle rolls over, your face could go right into that, and then you’re done. For a soldier, it’s not right. We’re supposed to—”

“We’re supposed to die in battle,” I finish for him. And he nods.

“After this, I’m going to the chow hall to grab some to-go plates for the mechanics. They’re stuck at the motor pool cleaning blood out of the MRAP. You want to come?” Millersmith says after a pause.

“I’m good.”

“I just went through all this while I was on leave. Did I tell you about my friend?”

“A little, I think. He died in a car crash, right?”

“Leaving my house. That’s one reason I’m not looking forward to going home, seeing all that family again.”

I stub out my cigarette and toss it in the top of the Hesco.

“I gotta shave,” I say.

At dusk, we are lining the rampway of the airfield. The pallbearers march slowly between us, supporting the coffin, as the men and women of First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment raise their arms in salute.

And we watch in silence as the bird carries him away.

I am teaching Hamlet. This is a first for me, and it has given me a chance not only to revisit the play, but also Almereyda’s messy, masterful adaptation (2000); and one summer in my own life when the time felt most terribly out of joint.

It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much a guy who couldn’t make up his mind, nor a man who thought too much, or who lacked resolve, or any of those things—or maybe all of them. The guy was just too totally into himself. That’s what makes Hamlet so compelling. The lure of drama, whether a play, a book, or a film, is the desire to be seen. We wait for that moment when we become real in the eye of the character, when what they say, or how they look, makes us suddenly real to ourselves. But Hamlet refuses. There’s the rub. He obliterates us the way he feels obliterated. That’s how up-himself he is. It’s very frustrating.

Oh, he can see himself, up to a point. ‘I’m an errant knave’ he brags to the lovesick Ophelia, without really ever seeing the girl in front of him. All he can see, all he can be, is himself. He just doesn’t get, that in order to be, as Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, we have to inter-be. In so being, in being so himself, Hamlet cannot inter-be. He can only be, as the murderous Claudius says, his ‘character, naked’—a contradiction in terms. So be it. If I cannot see myself in him, then I cannot be either.  Watching Hamlet is being Hamlet…. unable to be because of not being able to see oneself in the gaze of another.

Hamlet takes twenties-something slacker solipsism to a whole new level; Ethan Hawke nails it. His Hamlet is self-reflection to the point of self-obliteration. He would extinguish himself and thus aspire to the extinction of all.

This is not the first time the Dane has gotten to me. When I was twenty-three I dropped out of school for the last time. Or so I told myself. Fuck them and the donkeys they rode in on. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved into a place by myself, and stopped seeing friends. But before I did, I did something kind of kinky. In love with Shakespeare, I approached my professor and asked him if he’d tutor me privately. I’d pay, I said, whatever he thought was fair. I just didn’t want to live if I couldn’t live without Shakespeare. Astonishingly, he agreed. An astonishing man. Diminutive and rail thin, pasty, with a reputedly critically ill wife that no one had ever met, he agreed to read with me over one weird summer every Thursday in a restaurant near his house and we would discuss Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Hamlet.

Of course, Almereyda had not yet made his movie.  Last Action Hero was just a twinkle in John McTiernen’s eye … I watched and wept with Withnail. My ex wanted to get back together.  I sent him a note, quoting Viola from Twelfth Night. ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to’untie!’  Nerdy, right? The ex went off and bought himself the biggest most complete Globe Shakespeare he could find. It must have set him back a pound of flesh. It’s one of those big tomes with gold-edged pages and cheesy line drawings. I didn’t know this at the time, and the only reason I know about it now is because it sits on our bookshelf and whenever anyone in the family wants to check up on a quote, we refer to it. Our kids love the illustrations.

But that was all in the future. Like Hamlet I was too into into myself to really see my boyfriend, or a future with me in it. I was too concerned with my own character, naked, whatever that was. I couldn’t inter-be for the same reason Hamlet couldn’t: I was bereft. Like Hamlet I was grieving over a loss with ‘impious stubbornness.’  My best friend had died three years earlier, and I just couldn’t get past it. In the winter following her death I’d locked myself in my apartment and played old Beatles albums over and over again. Especially, ‘Here comes the sun,’ because I knew it never would.  Even though there was no suggestion of foul play, she’d died in an ugly, unnecessary way, and above all, without me, a terrible betrayal. I too thought that if I sat there for long enough on my own, my ‘too too solid flesh, would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ or adieu. Either or.

My only comfort were the dreams in which she’d appear, month after month, year after year, and for a few precious moments, or days, or however long the dream seemed to last, we were together again, yes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. A distance between us. She scared me a little. Remember me, she’d say, and there was something else.

Remember death, the undiscovered country, impossible dream. Memento mori, sixteenth century manifesto and the most paradoxical message of all. Remember your death, say our ghosts. Like that’s even possible. Sam Shepard is the ghost in Almereyda’s film, materializing in front of a Pepsi Lite vending machine.  ‘Wondrous strange,’ says Horatio, Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend. The ghost appears and reappears.  Don’t kill yourself, he tells Hamlet. Don’t go crazy. I need an untainted mind. Here is my story. I love you. Remember me.

Is that why they come, our ghosts and dream girls? Hamlet’s ghost, Yorick’s skull dug up by the clumsy gravedigger—we knew him once, didn’t we? Good night, sweet lady.

In dreams she’d be and wouldn’t be—alive and not alive—and she’d want something from me. Like Hamlet, I couldn’t give it to her. I wanted to, but it she wouldn’t look at me, not really. I’d crane my neck, will her to meet my eyes, but she’d turn away. That was the dream. Remember me, she’d say. And something else. And then she’d leave. And between her visits I’d do my damnedest to forget. I spiralled into the madness of not-forgetting. That’s all I could do.

The weekly meetings with my professor were therapeutic and instructive, but over time I sensed him becoming distracted and distant. Maybe it was because of his wife. I don’t know, but the summer ended and so did our Shakespeare sessions. I continued to be haunted by my dead friend. I had cut off all ties with her family, and with our group from school. I tried to go to a couple of reunions but was so traumatized by her ghostly presence that I hit twenty-something excess with a vengeance. I never talked about her and surprisingly I never wrote about her until very recently. Last year. Oddly enough it was a poem, the first real poem I ever wrote, and even more oddly, it was published, and stranger still, it was read and admired by the man who would become my agent.  There are indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’

We are teaching our students that Hamlet just doesn’t get the whole political thing. He can’t or won’t play the game. He is too into being true to himself. Maybe if he was savvy he would have been able to get rid of Claudius while he had the chance. And then he could have taken the throne and lain the ghost to rest. But maybe that’s kind of what he didn’t want, not what he wanted to be—to be King and to still be bereft. To have the whole world and have nothing, to be and not to be. After the publication of my poem, the dreams stopped.  Every night, I’d go to sleep and think, please, maybe tonight. But she’s gone. Gone and not forgotten. Her story, finally, told. Memento mori. The impossible dream.

When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio would drink of the poisoned cup that killed his best friend. Like Horatio, all I ever wanted to do was to throw myself into the grave and shovel dirt over the both of us. But Hamlet, and maybe my friend, have a better idea. Stay, says Hamlet to the weeping Horatio. Stay alive. Tell my story. Remember me.