by Alexandra Karnoff
Private First Class Oswald coaxed open his eyes and beheld the grimy grout and off-white tiles of a bathroom. The whereabouts of the bathroom, as well as the whereabouts of his shoes, were unknown to him. The only thing he could really be sure of was the cold tile pressed against his cheek and the dull pain belonging to his hipbone from lying on it for too long. He wiggled his toes and felt the warm air on the instep of his left foot. One of his socks was missing. The air around him was significantly warmer than the tile he was sprawled out on. He suspected that the air above him was even warmer. Heat rises. This gave him no indication as to where he was. Iraq was hot and so was North Carolina. He tried to remember the long ride to the air force base in the boxy hum-v, shoulder to shoulder with the other grunts. He tried to remember getting on the plane headed for the states. He tried but he just couldn't remember.
Urgency grabbed hold of his lungs with its boney fingers and clenched. His breathing sped up slightly as if the insurgence was going to walk through the door of the mystery bathroom at any moment. The blue blood thumped though his protruding veins and, his eyes fluttered in his skull but the rest of his body made no attempt to move. He didn't panic; Marines don't panic.
However, he had an overwhelming feeling that he should probably be concerned. Deciding he needed more to go on than the temperature of the air, he began gathering more information about his surroundings. He managed to send a clear message to his neck asking it, if it would be so kind, as to twist a little allowing him to look up. Up past the grout, past the bolt holding down a typical white toilet, and past the mystery that enveloped him. He pivoted his neck uprooting his cheek from its place on the tile floor, making the noise of the plastic top being peeled off a pudding cup. If he could have moved his hands to touch his face he was sure that there would have been two intersecting indents from the tile pressed into the fleshy part of his cheek. With his face pried loose from the edict of gravity, he strained to see the room around him. His head pounded. His vision was blurred. This was not unusual. He normally had to struggle to put things into focus for he was practically blind is his left eye. When he was growing up, he was forced to sport an eye patch. He had refused to wear it. He hid his failing from everyone he had come to know. If the Marine Corp had known, they wouldn't have allowed him to join. He was technically undeployable.
It was extra difficult to focus this morning, if it even was morning. Locked in his gaze were two images that coalesced into one. As they merged he realized it was a towel rack. There was a small washcloth and two hand towels still neatly folded, he suspected, the day before by a diligent housekeeper. The embroidered emblems on the towels read "Heidi's Motor Lodge" one in pink and the other in blue. He was fifteen minutes away from Camp Lejeune in the adjacent college town.
He was familiar with this motel. He and his squad would come down and bar hop, making trouble and starting fights with frat guys. It was either that or go to one of the many strip bars in Jacksonville. They would routinely get one room with two beds, which was within walking distance of the bars. Four would sleep in the beds, one in a chair, however many on the floor, and some one would always pass out cuddling the toilet. Last night had been Oswald's turn. The bathroom was filled with the smell of old stomach acid and Powers Irish Whisky. He knew that Ornandez would come and attend to him momentarily. Ornandez was Oswald's barracks mate. They shared a room and swapped stories of epic bar fights, faded scars, and disappointing blowjobs. Ornandez watched everyone's back and made it a point to look after the guys preceding a heavy night of drinking. They were the closest thing to a stable family he had. The Ornandez family had been involved in the cooking and selling of crystal meth long before he was born. He grew up silent for he was in constant fear of his father and uncles. A little bit of him died every time one of his brothers became of the age to be trusted with large sums of money.
Ornandez never missed a day of school but he intentionally failed all his classes in an attempt to never graduate. His father, the boss, thought he was a retard and therefore had no practical use for him, just as Ornandez had intended. In his third attempt at senior year his teachers eventually caught on and graduated him regardless. When he took his placement test at the recruiting office his scores were so high that they offered him almost any position in the United States Marine Corp. They suggested special ops, CIA, anything but a grunt. He had just left a more than questionable and highly secretive lifestyle and was not eager to start up another one. He responded by saying, " What's the point of going to war if you’re not going to be a warrior?"
Ornandez, although slight in build, loomed in the doorway of the bathroom. He was only about 5' 7" and a hundred and sixty pounds but he could drop any man to the ground. He was quick and fearless. He let his head rest on the doorframe and surveyed the scene. It reeked and Oswald had spewed orange remains of the mashed sweet potatoes they had all inhaled in the mess hall the night before. Oswald, aware of his presence, looked up at Ornandez with what looked like a great amount of effort. "Hey there Lance Corporal. Sorry if I don't stand at attention." Ornandez had risen in rank faster than the other guys and would never live it down.
"Ha ha, really funny. You must still be drunk. You only get jealous of me when you've nursed a bottle of Cutty Sark."
"Well, that explains the smell." Ornandez kicked in Oswald's direction ruffling the fuzzy bath mat Oswald had managed to get only one socked foot on. Oswald made no attempt to move knowing full well that Ornandez would prop him up against the shitter. Ornandez grabbed hold of Oswald's shoulder and flipped him with great ease even though there was no effort on Oswald's part. He tucked his hands under each armpit and shimmied him up against the cold neck of the porcelain toilet. He removed the pink embroidered towel from the rack and wet it with the translucent brown water that tricked from the tap. He threw it at Oswald's face landing it so that the end of his big Jewish nose stuck out from under it. It shrouded his eyes making him look like the antithesis of the veiled women he had seen on the streets of Baghdad. With a couple of tries Oswald managed to pluck the towel from his face and dangled it in front of his focusing eyes.
"Pink?" Oswald questioned.
"Ya, the only room they had last night was the 'economy honeymoon suite.' I hope you had as much fun on our wedding night as I did honey."
"Get the fuck out of here." Ornandez chuckled and turned for the door.
"Oh, hey, what happened to that slutty looking red head from the bar? You know, the one with the tongue ring?"
"Trash.” Trash was the dive bar all of the poor ass, paint-covered art fags went to buy two-dollar bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"I don't know man.” Ornandaz paused, flicking the still-frame slides behind his eyes that he passed off as memories. He couldn't remember her face, but he could remember the glint of the stainless steel behind her teeth as she spoke. He didn't remember what she had said or the music that muffled her words. He did remember how she rolled her tongue on its side biting down on the sleek shaft capped on either side by little balls encrusted with pink jewels. He discarded the memories and shrugged off the faceless girl with the same amount of effort it probably would have taken to get her to uncross her legs. "Damn man you totally could have gotten some last night." Oswald shrugged. He had a dark humor about him but he always managed to put a saccharin spin on the world around him. Ornandez had chalked it up to all the pot he smoked prior to a life of bi-weekly drug tests.
The guys always stopped into Trash just for Oswald. He had been a punk rocker in high school, and after graduation he picked up and left for Oregon to live on a commune. He had caught wind of stories about a like-minded sub group of people who all shared a fear of the New World Order and chased after an anarchistic dream that didn't even belong to them. All he found were tofu-eating protesters. He had lost faith in the power of change and in an act of desperation he signed his life away to the very powers he feared and reviled. Going to art college bars reminded him of the old days. It was also the only kind of place he could get laid. He had never felt confident flirting with strippers and bragging to alpha phi girls that he could kill a man with his bare hands. Conversation was his foreplay. The exchange of accumulated knowledge was just as good as the exchange of bodily fluids, well almost as good. He was even starting to lose faith in that. After spending prolonged periods of time with most women, he eventually just wanted to tell them to shut the hell up.
"I'm going out, you want anything? Aspirin? Pepto Bismol? A new liver?" asked Ornandez.
"Orange juice. And get me some smokes."
"Juice and cigarettes? You're fucked up." With that Ornandaz turned and exited the bathroom to avoid a 'your mother was fucked up ... by me, last night' joke that Oswald was bound to unleash. He maneuvered around the sleeping bodies on the floor of the hotel room so as not to wake what could be a potentially dangerous and disoriented mob of young combat veterans. He slipped through unnoticed and quietly closed the door behind him like a mother after just checking on her sleeping children. He walked the length of the second floor balcony rapping his hand against the iron railing feeling it vibrate with every flick of his wrist. He descended the cement stairs and crossed the busy street that separated the hotel from a row of gas stations. He passed a yellow Hummer with a 'Freedom isn't free' bumper sticker fueling itself at one of the stele-like pumps. Next to it was a women pumping gas into her silver Volvo. Her pale chalky hands clenched the handle of the black nozzle with its umbilical cord stretching up above it.
When she looked up at him, an expression of shame washed over her face. Ornandez was startled by this and attributed it to this cammo get up. He hadn't planned on going outside looking like G.I. Joe, but Oswald had gotten sweet-potato puke all over his civilian clothes. He was a walking guilt trip of freedom and democracy. The woman's eyes darted back and forth between him and the yellow ribbon magnet she had on the back of her Swedish sedan. Her gaze came to rest on a rainbow puddle in the asphalt in front of her.
He continued walking passed the monuments of gasoline, the pillars of fuel, towards the Rapid Randall Quickie Mart. He pushed open the right side of the double doors and the motion sensor let out a loud "beep beep beep." With out thinking and having no control of his own movements, Omandez pitched forward and fell to the palms of his hands and then to his knees. His shirt had pulled up a little and he could feel the cold floor and the granules of sand on the skin of his stomach. The patrons looked up from their Hostess cup cakes and energy drinks with surprise. Realizing who he was, they tried to look anywhere else but at him. With embarrassment Omandez stood up and swiped the dirt from his knees. They had told him that might happen. They had told him that was one of the reasons he couldn't go home right away. They wanted to keep an eye on them just in case they developed more serious symptoms of war. He was ok with that. He didn't mind.
He liked being in the barracks with the guys. He didn't like, however, the displaced looks of embarrassment on the faces of the people in the store. He grabbed a jug of orange juice and filled a cup with steaming black coffee. He stepped up to the cash register and slapped five dollars down on the counter. The woman just looked at him and made no advancement towards the money. "You poor thing" she mewed. "You must have just gotten back, am I right?" Omandez nodded. "Now you have to tum right around and go back. You poor thing."
"You have to go back again"
"What are you talking about?" he said with a twinge of frustration.
"Didn't you watch the presidential address last night?" He nodded his head
"No." He hadn't even been aware of it.
"Oh dear," the woman lamented. She pointed to the newspaper stand next to the register.
There was one paper left and looked as if some one had rummaged through it looking for the coupons that lay folded between the thin, off-white sheets of facts, quotes, and speculation. The bold black letters were at an angle and he was forced to take a step closer in the direction of the printed text. It read "Bush calls for 20 thousand more troops." Ornandez hurriedly grabbed the paper up and turned with out saying a word. He pushed passed the door with the orange juice under his arm and almost spilled the scalding hot coffee all over his hand.
He sat on the curb outside the store and didn't take his eyes off the finely printed letters for a solid five minutes. When he had read every word, he looked up and gazed at the row of gas pumps in front of him. He watched as the cars zoomed by on the road in front of the hotel. He could see their door, door number 38, from his spot on the curb. It opened and the familiar silhouette of Oswald appeared in its frame. Oswald squinted his eyes and dug around in the pockets of his jeans. Finding nothing, he patted at his front breast pocket. Still nothing. Ornandaz suddenly remembered the previous request for cigarettes and violently slapped the pages of the newspaper together. He didn't want to go back into that store, and he didn't want to have to talk to that lady again,but, not wanting to return to the hotel room with more bad news than was necessary, he stood and turned for the double doors of the quickie mart.
Creative Writing, Spring '07