“Corporal Vanguard,” Jack Bristow

by MP

     I have to get out of here, I can’t stay here, Tom Vanguard had thought, driving his Chevy on the empty intersection. The pressures of small-town city life eating away at him, he had started to feel a sharp, acute pain in the upper right side of his chest. Instinctively, he grabbed the pills from his right-side shirt pocket, popped them into his mouth, and let them dissolve dryly. Ah. Lorazapam—one of the few pills you can eat. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of bitterness to its texture. Almost instantaneously, Tom had started to feel better—the pill was already beginning to work.
     Now, the benzo-induced detachment already felt, he could look at things objectively, and dissect where it had all gone wrong.
     He had come back from Iraq two months ago, and, in spite of what the base psychiatrist had told him, the panic attacks had not slackened. On the contrary—they have intensified, he thought disgustedly. And why shouldn’t they have? The man had spent two years of his life in a country that had seemed an entirely different world than the one he was living in. Everything about this town has changed. And not just the town, but the people in it, like Irene. Shit, I don’t want to go see her, but I have to—it is the thing to do.” They had been engaged prior to Tom’s deployment. “I will write and e-mail you everyday,” she had told him at the tarmac, kissing his face, weeping. “I know you have no family, and that it eats away at you, but what you have to remember is you do have a person at home who loves you.” She kissed his cheek, and then rubbed her belly, correcting herself: “People who love you.”
     Unlike the other men from his division, Tom
was a fervent believer in monogamy, and when the other guys had urged him to pick up a whore on the downtown streets of Baghdad, he would always tell them “No.” “What’s the matter,” Johnny would ask Tom, annoyingly chewing his gum. “Your old lady got you pussy-whipped or something?” And Tom would always reply by saying, “Fuck no, it’s just that I don’t trust those girls—Christ knows what types of diseases they got.” Then Johnny would pause, flip open his wallet, and hand him the square plastic packaging which had exotic words on it as well as the picture of a tiger. “That’s why you never forget your raincoat.”
     But Tom, desperately in love with and lusting over no other woman but Irene, would always tell Johnny no. “No. That isn’t absolute foolproof. I’m not going to gamble with my life like that, or Irene’s when I get home.” Then, to placate Johnny, to make him still think he Tom was a man, Tom said, “You find me a nice girl out here that ain’t a pro, and I’ll go out and have some fun sometime.” And Johnny would never say anything to this; he hated unprofessional Iraqi women.
     Things had gone swimmingly the first few months but then, one day, while Tom, Johnny, Gilbert and Thompson were driving the Hummer through the empty checkpoints of Baghdad, an IED exploded, all men going out in a ball of fiery glory except for Tom, who only sustained third-degree burns and a few broken ribs. But the surgeon on base had stitched Tom up, shot him full of opiates, and he had recuperated in no time. Nights later, in the tent, he lay awake, thinking of Johnny and how he had lived. He had a wife and two kids at home, but was he in the wrong for visiting the working girls downtown?
     Now Tom was finally starting to feel the tension, the fear Johnny and the rest of the guys must have all eventually felt. What if he were to die tomorrow? What if he were to drive the hummer into an IED, or get blown up by some crazy, gentle-faced Sunni with a homemade bomb strapped to his chest?
     He had felt a nervousness, a sickness of being never able to love again. And then he had thought of Irene. What if she is playing around herself? He had no way of knowing, and the idea, the mental image of Irene in bed with some other man, on top, moaning, her back erect and her blonde hair flailing in the air was more than he could handle.
     The next day, he told his c/o that he had to make the trip into Baghdad. “Honestly, colonel. I was up all night thinking about what happened to Johnny and the rest of the guys last week, and I just can’t stand it—any day now, we, you me, General Petraeus himself, could wind up dead. We are putting our lives on the line and our girlfriends, spouses are on the other side of the continent. Fucking and seeing God knows what/who.”
     And what a girl this one had been. He had taken her into the abandoned hospital, this time of day all lights were out, and so he had found a spot near the hospital bed on the left next to the window. The girl’s name was Desdemona. She had long, brown hair and tawny complexion. He grabbed some blankets from off the bed, put them on the floor, and started kissing her lips gently; then, harsher and harsher, in an almost animal intensity. And then, he had reached for her shorts—unbuckling the belt from off the cheap, cheesy imitation leather.
      She had felt so good, Tom thought, about a mile away from Irene’s now. Her skin was smooth; her mouth warm, her tongue and lips fluttering wildly over his. He had felt more love for her than he would ever for Irene. And now he was right in front of Irene’s house, she outside with their two-year-old girl. Irene sitting on the white chair with Kaitlyn nearby, playing on the tree stump. Irene waved. And Tom waved back, thinking, This is not the same woman I was engaged to and this girl—
     Kaitlyn walked away from the log, now in front of the sprinkler set, laughing and jumping stupidly in front of it. Her mother walked up to her and grabbed her short, little hands, forcing her wave to “Daddy.” Tom reluctantly, shamefully exiting then car, a smile on his face but disdain in his heart, smiling and waving back.