A soldier waits in the Atlanta airport for his return flight to Iraq.
| "At fourteen-hundred, somebody will walk you all over to your terminal," said the old guy behind the counter at the Atlanta airport's USO.
He'd been nothing but pleasant since I arrived. He'd greeted me with a smile and hoped my R&R had been good. The only response that came to mind was "fuck you." I said nothing and nodded.
I shoved my duffle in a rack and quickly left the USO.
My two weeks at home were over. Ordinary normal was abruptly being replaced by Iraq normal.
I picked a random direction and walked. People moved everywhere, in every direction. Voices and PA speakers crashed together into pointless noise.
My desert camouflage uniform put me on display. Everyone was looking at me. Just look the fuck away. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break something. I stared down at my boots still stained with Iraqi winter mud and tried to ignore everything.
"Thank you for your service," someone said.
Leave me the fuck alone. I looked up at the speaker without seeing them and forced a smile. "Thank you."
I wanted lunch in a quiet corner. Every place I passed had long lines waiting to order and dining areas with packed tables. I'd rather eat broken glass than stand in a line or share a table.
"Thank you for your service."
Please just go away. I forced another smile. "Thank you."
I turned into a men's room. I ducked into a stall and sat on the toilet. I covered my eyes with a hand, trying to slow my breathing and calm down. After several moments, I sat up and ran my hand through my hair.
My wife buzzed my head just before I left. While she worked the clippers' my son, barely two years old, stared at me like I was an alien. There was so much to thank me for. I dumped a kid I didn't know on my wife to raise alone for what? For a participation medal on a dress uniform? To get our lieutenant a shiny bronze star?
It wasn't quiet and had the usual bathroom noises; footsteps, flushing, and sinks. But nobody talks in bathrooms. I sat in the stall for a long time.
I eventually wandered back into the terminal. I walked for what felt like hours. I finally found an unused airline gate. The gate's counter hid a row of chairs facing a floor to ceiling window. I took one of these seats and spent the last hours in the United States watching planes and ground crew move around outside.
I got back to the USO about fifteen minutes early and retrieved my duffle bag. The USO quickly filled with more returning uniformed military. A few minutes past fourteen-hundred, the USO guy that had greeted me when I came in stepped out from behind the counter.
"First off, I want to thank you all for your service."
Not again. Just stop it. Don't thank me. Christ, you should probably hate me.
"Let's line up outside and I'll walk you all to your terminal."
Everyone hefted up duffle bags and back packs and shuffled quietly outside the USO door. I took a place in the middle of the crowd and glared at the old man.
"Ok, let's go"
I was too numb to hate him this time. We followed in something that vaguely resembled a line. I walked, oblivious to everything except the person I followed. Barbed wire, no sleep, and body armor stretched endlessly into my future. The brief taste of normal made it all the more hopeless.
Applause seeped into my gray thoughts and pulled my attention out of myself and back to my surroundings. Travelers stood by their luggage. Clerks came out of their shops. Custodians stopped their chores. Diners stood at their tables. Flight attendants and pilots stopped hunting for their next plane. Everyone in that crowded airport stood and clapped. I didn't want to scream anymore. I didn't feel alone. I could outlive this.
I looked down again, this time to hide forming tears.