So this is a non-fiction piece I wrote for an English assignment during college in the spring. I would love some feedback from anyone. It’s titled Paper Airplanes.
“I go my ways
And when I find a mountain-nil
I set it in a blaze.
So either way
I’ll get into the garden,
and I don’t care what happens”
by Linda Goodman
How many times have you been here before? The same brick buildings, the same muggy spring air, the same unfamiliar road signs, “North Wall Avenue” and “Lone Elm Road.” Your feet are raw like sandpaper, your tongue dry like smoke; eyes swollen, head throbbing, stomach empty.
It’s midnight and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before. The orange lamp-lights are the same anywhere. So is the haunting suspicion that you aren’t alone. That you are a foreigner in this paved wilderness.
You’ve learned to pack light. You make friends with the benches and cobwebs at bus stations. An old t-shirt lies wadded up and tossed amongst the cigarette butts on the oil-stained ground. The memory of another person lying in ruin.
Everywhere was a snapshot of territorial expansion history, but fake, with a Walmart in the background. I couldn’t believe I ended up in Kansas.
I left the barracks for Kansas City at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The party from Friday was just dying down when I called a cab. Drunk soldiers stumbled down the halls into their bunks. Others tried to keep the liveliness going. One look at a McDonalds cup filled to the brim with cigarette butts, Grizzly chewing tobacco and alcohol told me I had to get out of there. At least for one night. I was frustrated that my life had suddenly boiled down to a fast food receptacle full of an after party witches brew. But everything about Ft. Riley was frustrating. The weather, the people, the officers, the work, the rules, the so-called “night life.” Every step I took got me nowhere; got me nothing. If could just get out of here. Of all the Army bases in the world, it was Kansas for me.
The cab’s headlights shone in the early morning darkness. I got to Kansas City at about 6 a.m with a copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” under my arm and checked into a Motel 8. Legally, I wasn’t old enough to register a room to my name, but the beautiful dark skinned woman behind the glass screen fudged my age for me. (How was I supposed to know the age requirement for check-ins?) I opened the door to a dark empty bedroom.
Most people are paranoid about the cleanliness of lodge bedding. Not me. I collapsed face down on the sheets, suddenly realizing how exhausted I was, and didn’t wake up until the sun was high.
In the daylight, I could see I wasn’t really in the city, but next to a cluster of restaurants and gas stations on a freeway exit. I called another cab to take me further. I don’t remember the street the driver dropped me off at, but it was not the Kansas City I envisioned. A man in faded clothing was walking my way with his head down and his hands in his pockets amid the frozen background.
“Hey, could you tell me where I am?” I asked – half expecting to get mugged.
Laughing, “Where do you think you are?”
“Kansas City,” I said bluntly.
“You got an extra smoke?” I gave him one. “Thanks,” he said, lighting the cigarette. “You’re about three blocks south of the Power and Lights District. If you wanna find something to do, your best bet is to go up that way. Where are you from?”
“Well, there’s a lot to do in K.C. but not now. It’s too cold. Everybody’s bundlin’ up, stayin’ home, stayin’ warm. I’m headin’ to the library myself. I gotta get out of this weather. An old man like myself will freeze down to the bone.”
“It’s pretty cold,” I said, not knowing how to reply to his library situation.
I said goodbye and heard his voice trail down the street, rambling on about the cold.
When I got to the Power and Lights District I didn’t even realize it. There was nothing there but a few clubs and bars, barely open, and some bright green and orange signs just lighting up before the sun went down.
It was the pulse of an animal in hibernation, beating just enough to cheat death. The spiders own this city.
Not all fires are bright, and not all are red. Some fires burn hotter and some burn brighter. Some burn in blue flames and some burn green. But a bright red fire is one that must be watched with a narrow eye. A bright red fire can torch an entire garden.
A bright red fire can stir the atoms of a human compass to the very edge of combustion. The dial becomes a propeller and the directions become incoherent (Neast, Sest, Wouth and Earth). What was once a destination becomes a conquest. What was logic and order becomes anarchy, turmoil and madness. Victory equals self-destruction, even depression; the coming undone of the entire engine. Belts snap, bolts rattle, gears grind, pumps struggle, until nothing is left but the single weight of a metal core. Sometimes.
Rinse fingers in water and flick. Let the drops beat the flames back (repeat until tame). This method will never put the fire out, but will ensure a controlled burn. DO NOT turn away for long.
An unruly bright red fire can behave like a black hole. It can annihilate all in its path. Vitruvian Man armed to the teeth. It is an addict, sucking in all things that are hot and loud and burning them. Run away.
In extreme cases: summon a monsoon or prepare a funeral.
It was the first time being away from my company since I got to Iraq. I was going home on two weeks of leave. There were hundreds of other soldiers like me with the same plan in mind. The base we were at was a relay point for travelling soldiers; only really meant for a one-night stay at the most. We were assigned to a transient barracks that consisted of two thirty-man tents with wooden doors. Inside they were absolutely filthy. They smelled like body odor and had bits of dirty laundry scattered around them.
Some soldiers joked about the tent. Everyone was tired. I threw my bags down and sat on one of the cots. The sweat in my boots felt like it was overflowing.
“My teeth have that shit sandwich feel,” someone said. I licked my two front teeth in mutual agreement.
I was too dirty to get comfortable and the prospect of “R and R” made me too excited to sleep so I went outside to smoke with some of the others. They were mostly low-ranking. There was one sergeant, but he was one of the “cool” ones. They all knew each other and called the sergeant by name, not rank. I sat next to pull-up bar made out of truck parts and listened. Mostly, they swapped war stories and talked about different things they were going to buy in the states: expensive liquor, tattoos, muscle cars, etc. I talked to them only for a few minutes and learned that they were all military police who had been deployed in Iraq as a type Army SWAT. They drove around at night in “black-out,” raiding villages, kicking in doors and arresting “insurgent leaders.”
It was probably close to 0230 by the time I went back inside the tent. The only sounds were snores and the tapping of laptop keys. A gentle brown-orange that shone through the tent flaps woke me up – along with the sounds of Black Hawks and C-130s. Some asshole blared a generic rap song through headphones that were too small for such volume.
When I got home I told mom and dad all about the transient barracks and how long it took for the plane to arrive. I hardly mentioned the war or the things we had to do. Sandstorms and IED blasts didn’t matter. My entire deployment was the sum of an uneventful one-nighter in an unfamiliar logistics base.
“Mom, I’m telling you. It sucked,” I said as we left the SeaTac airport. “I will never complain about Delta or United again.”
Maybe he walked down a scorched road in New Mexico. Maybe he was in Northern California on a wet forest highway at night, still feeling the effects of an acid trip from the night before. Or maybe he was in Colorado, going to the Red Rock Amphitheatre, with his right arm extended and his thumb out, walking backwards with the wind pushing his clumpy black hair westward.
Maybe through all of this, he brought a guitar and carried it in his left hand – hoping that he’d get the chance to meet Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir and they could “puff one down and play some ol’ guitar”. He always hoped he could be a roadie for the Grateful Dead.
Maybe he was really lonely, and the people he met simply came and went.
The only thing that was a constant was the road ahead of him and the experience as it was right now. He was like the sea. He was placid and calm, deep and mysterious. (But he would later realize that he could be torrential, cold and wicked.) Certainly salty.
In fifty years, he would lay in a hospital bed, literally bent out of shape, and remember his youth. “I was walking down the road with my thumb in the air,” he would say. He would remember when telephones only existed on wires and when people weren’t like characters from television shows. Before American consumerism was so obstinate. Before satellites littered the skies. When music could spark a real revolution, instead of selling a product.
He read Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and there he was. Imbedded in time. With his back to us, and a future, brighter than his tie-dye shirt, ahead of him.
Biology 105 was just starting, but it didn’t matter. All the cute girls and overly aggressive guys were miles away. We were cruising at the speed of light, stoned out of our minds, on our way to High Steel Bridge in Mason County, Washington. Teachers, parents, cops – authority itself didn’t seem to exist. It was freedom at its finest and it was in the backseat of a beat up red Saturn.
The three of us didn’t talk much on that trip. We didn’t need to. Chuck’s hands were busy with the wheel and the stick, while I and Joe both stared out of the windows at the mountains and shirtless farmers. The towns were all small. Some were even eerie. Cemeteries, overgrown with weeds and faded by wind, were plotted along the highway. The folksy sounds of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” played on the stereo and resonated through our heads the whole way there.
We got to the bridge and parked. We stared down a 400 foot drop into a rocky creek, dropping paper airplanes and rocks until they disappeared in the white foamy water. Class was still in session at the high school.
I wish I could tell you more about the trip. I wish I could remember the few words we said or what we did when we got back. But all I remember were those things we threw over the bridge and the whooshing sound the tall grass made on the highway.
She is a horse whose hooves beat embers into the ground. Her breath is smoke that flows over the skin and caresses the shoulders.
The amount of “I love you” and “I will kill you.” Just enough.
She is sex and violence. She is a tornado in the sun.
It’s 1 a.m. and the next bus won’t be here for at least five more hours. You lay down on the wooden bench and form a pillow with your arms. Your pockets are empty, your cell phone is dead, your cigarettes are gone. You are cut off. You stare up at the few visible stars in the December sky.
You curse the night for doing this to you. You curse her for being so careless. You curse yourself for being so careful. You are a rock that has sunk into the deepest part of the ocean. The fish swim by with their eyes on the sides of their faces, not giving you a second or even a first thought.
You make your way to the dock and stare out across the bay. How many times have you been here before? The same sand, the same freezing water, the same distant lights glimmering in the distance. Your feet feel like raw meat, your tongue is soaked in booze; eyes dry, head spinning and stomach caving. It’s 1 a.m. and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before.
This was essentially about certain points in my life from the age 16 – 21. When I was asked by my critique group what it was about I said it was about the strongest points of my life. Which makes sense… but at the same time the essay’s disjunctiveness makes it purposely confusing. It’s more of a collage of angsty memories.