Three tours in Iraq and a bullet to the leg didn't stop him. They tell me what changed him was coming through U.S. customs. The metal detectors and apathetic stares. The donut kiosk. Now he is standing on the porch and avoiding everyone that came to his party. I've only met the guy once at another Fourth of July barbeque and that was a long time ago. Welcome home.
I notice an application for Arby's on the kitchen table. Someone was using it as a coaster and the paper is still soggy in the middle. Scotch sweats more in the summer time. I need to smoke.
I pull open the screen door and walk outside. He doesn't turn his head to look at me. He doesn't say hello or smile. I stand in front of him and try to make eye contact. He's about my age but so much older. When I strike my Zippo, his free hand clenches and his beer hand jumps to his mouth. He closes his eyes when a bottle rocket goes off half a block away. His mouth remains tight, unflinching.
I take a drag and he loosens up a bit. We stand there quietly for a few minutes and I make an attempt at small talk. "I bet you're loving this weather. Fallujah must have been hell in the summer."
I look at him and notice the smallest trace of a smirk on his clean shaven face. He finishes his beer and grabs another one from the cooler at his feet. I'm positive that he is drunk but somehow he doesn't slur a single word.
"Five hundred years from now the American Flag will be an ancient symbol. Scholars will continuously debate on its meaning. No one will remember my name or the name of my division or all of those faces. None of it will have mattered. That's hell. Sometimes I actually miss the fucking desert. "
I can't move for a moment. I think of what to say and all that comes out is "Thank you." Then, I leave the party.