You know, as much as I might enjoy the civil rough and tumble in these our humble lodgings, in actual space I’m loth to talk politics with strangers. Most people whom I’ve had the opportunity to disagree with seem to eventually turn disagreeable. Few minds are changed, and the blood pressure merely rises.
So yesterday, after a thoroughly average round of golf at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in the kind of heat we longed for all summer, I decided to stop by at the health club for a massage. Because my back, she groaned. Under the abuse of a 22-year old’s swing that has made no concession to the corruptions of late middle age.
Ordinarily I request a deep tissue massage for a specific complaint, but by the time I’d gotten to the club the pain was somewhat reduced. A Swedish massage might be more relaxing, and it was certain to be cheaper, so I shifted gears and prepared for a lighter touch.
My therapist was a fit, but compact young woman, pretty in a plain, unadorned way. Her hair tightly bound against a broad skull, her thin lips forming a taut smile that did not quite reach her eyes. I made as much small talk as was required to demonstrate my humanity before turning quiet and allowing her efforts to transport me to the customary fugue like state of relaxation that even sleep does not provide. For her own part, she was competent and professionally cool. At least, that is, until I was flipped over.
Times are tight, you may have noticed. Trade has dropped off, and I was made aware of a certain sensitivity to economic distress. There’s no loose change for Bikram yoga, I learned. Without being entirely sure what Bikram yoga was.
At some point it was revealed that I’d been in the Navy, and retired. This is something of which I am perhaps unseemly proud. There was an almost imperceptible pause in her ministrations, before she asked, almost casually, “Have you ever killed anyone?”
I took a moment to reply, before responding, “This is not a question we ask even of each other.” Nor was this a conversation I wanted to be in.
Her answer was a satisfied, almost triumphal grunt: “Exactly.” As though some point had been proven.
I sighed to myself softly, decided to let it go.
“I’m a pacifist,” she went on. “I don’t swallow any of it, Iraq. But my sister was talking about how many soldiers joined for college money. I never had any college money. And they knew that they might die.”
“No one believes they’re going to die,” I answered. “They think it will happen to other people.” Left unspoken were these thoughts: “You are free to have fashionable opinions on war and peace because other people you will never know commit themselves to your protection,” and, “There comes a time when a soldier realizes that he very probably will die. What he does between that and whatever follows after defines love in a way that no one who has never rolled over on a live grenade or vectored on a desperate commit to protect his friends will ever experience.”
She’d been giving massages for 21 years. She probably never considered, 21 years ago, that she’d still be doing it two decades later. I felt her seething with her resentments, all the things that had never been given to her. I found myself despairing, thinking of all the things she had been given that she never would appreciate.
A part of me wanted to tell her: “It was the 2nd of February, 1999. Our country was not at war, but your Navy certainly was. They shot at us, and missed. I shot at them, and did not. That was the first time. There would be others. I would do it again in a heartbeat, although I have never quite forgiven myself, ever since. Not for the act itself, nor especially for the savage exultation I took in it.” But I didn’t. Her mind was closed.
There is a before and after line you cross. You can only cross it in one direction. I have, in the course of the intervening years, had many opportunities to turn this thing over in my mind in the quiet hours of the early morning, when everyone else around me sleeps soundly, dreaming common dreams. I have come to grips with my doubts in my own fashion.
Just as she, I believe, has come to grips with her unexamined certainties.
When our time was up, she walked off abruptly. At the counter, I tipped generously.
And then I went home.