As goosebumps cover my arms, I sit, elbows resting on the thick shellac covering a damaged bar and press my forehead into interlocked fingers. The first few horn notes from a song I have never heard reminds of the “The Army Song” and I close my eyes as the cold sensation spreads. As each hair stiffens and stands taller, my back naturally does the same. I sit up straighter, stop drinking, and listen with reverence to each word and every beat of the song only playing in my head. That song finishes as the jukebox continues and I relax. I look to the patrons sitting in the adjacent stools and notice the same reaction. The one to the left, a 22-year-old, is young and anxious. His eyes are bright and clear, taking in the world and learning all he can from everything. His drink is a cheap bottled beer, all he can afford a low-ranking infantryman’s salary. He peels the label back, look at the attractive waitress longingly, and rubs the still raised hair on his forearm. As he places the empty bottle on the bar, another patron sends him another with a “Thank you for your service.” He nods in appreciation. He is stick thin and athletic with an air of misguided confidence and self-assurance. The alcohol flushes his clean-shaven face. The shorn sides of his head, the small patch of hair slightly longer on top, and the clothes, obviously from the base store, give away his chosen career. He is at this bar alone and looking for companionship. He eagerly looks to the door at odd intervals with contained disappointment. This happens now, and, as he inevitably turns back to his beer, I see the rare face of innocence. He is here because he quietly wishes the waitress would notice him, but she has never and will never remember him, so he looks for other patrons to make rash and poor decisions with. He does not know, nor does he care, about the next three years, let alone the next thirty. He is serving his country during a war he does not agree with because that is what he was taught to do. He is repaying his debt to a country that held him and raised him. He knows he will go to war, he knows of the dangers and the cost, but he is willing, moreover eager, to complete the task he signed up for. He is ignorant and stubborn, strong and fast, and the epitome of youth. He is on his way to Iraq and all he can think of is the pleasure derived from a beautiful woman’s touch.
I am in the middle. I am a hairy, unkempt contemptuous oaf of a man. My eyes are slits, leery of all, and mostly hidden by my lowered brow. I rarely look up from a Black and Tan, my drink of choice when I’m drinking away my veteran’s pension. My world is one of mistrust: mistrust of people and the government I so fully supported. My hand aches as does my head. A nonverbal exchange is made as I finish my beer and the waitress delivers another. “Thank you for your service” I say with the irony lost on her. She is the same beautiful creature the 22-year-old longs for, but I am older, jaded, and cognizant of the patron server relationship. While he wants to make an impression on her, I can only look downward knowing full well she remembers me. She remembers me from last night, the night before that, and from all the nights and days I have settled into this barstool. The sharp angular features of my youth have softened, both in the face and the midsection. In retaliation for years of forced conformity, both the hair on top of my head and on my face is longer than socially acceptable. I think I don’t shave because I am lazy, but as the night goes on and my heavy heart and lighter head begin to speak more honestly, I know I desire to hide behind this all. I do maintain some composure. My hat may be dirty, but my clothes are clean. No one mistakes me for a derelict. I just appear as one of those people who has harder time than most people when handling life and the world. My arms are thick and hard and my back strong, but my hand, the left one, is weakened by blasts and surgeries and the dull ache in my head often flares up, causing impatient outbursts that leads me to self-prescribed alcohol. I’m not sure why I fought anymore, I just know they operated on me after I nearly died for them, and when I was unable to do my job, they gave a thousand dollars a month and no transferable work skills. I work for minimum wage under the supervision of nineteen-year-olds. They grace me with their condescension because my memory, due to the blasts, is not as sharp as theirs. They do not know I’m a veteran, a decorated war hero, a Purple Heart recipient. All they know is that I am almost 30 and I work for them, so I must be worthless. And so, they treat me that way. All day, every day, and afterward, I come into this bar, I sit down, and I drink enough to forget those things that even my bruised brain refuses to let go of. No one knows who I am or what I did, and most wouldn’t believe me if I told them because I don’t look like any other soldier they have ever seen.
To my right, the stool is taken up by a 40-year-old leaning over a glass of water. After many years of irresponsibility, he has nearly stopped drinking but certainly stopped drinking alone. He looks at me with wizened eyes that are just as bright as the 22-year-old’s, and a stout, knowing expression. His attitude is one of hope and happiness. His clothes are pristinely pressed, and his hair is sharp and short. His well-groomed stubble is purposeful as he radiates confidence. This confidence, however, is different than that of the 22-years-old’s. This confidence is one of a man that has seen life, seen death, and decided to do his best to beat both. He is a proud veteran and is willing to talk to anyone about his service. His head aches and occasionally so does his hand, but he can control the pain because he realizes the alcohol is not a cure, only a crutch. He is still strong, but tight and sharp minded, making him more than the pile of useless muscles I am. The waitress is polite and kind as they speak with no pretenses. He has a home and wife, he only comes here to humor me and show me what I have given up. No one speaks, but the younger man looks at the older man with respect, the man to the kid with envy. I look at the both of them with the contempt and they return the scowl. We cannot stand each other. I disappoint the them both and they show me my biggest failures and regrets. I am a battered, beaten, and cynical version of the first, and a futile waste to the latter. I sit here, every night, giving half my paycheck to the jukebox and the other half to the waitress. Someone, the young man I think, plays “I’m Proud to be an American” and I weep. The blasts ruined my emotional responses, so I cannot control it even if I chose to. I just choke up and heavy, slow tears fall from my eyes. My two other-selves cry too, but unlike me, they know why. “Tomorrow,” I say to the other two, “tomorrow, I will do better, I’ll make you proud, both of you, but tonight, I will have one more.” One more song, one more drink, and probably one more night in this bar. As the last of the beer hits the back of my throat and the waitress hands me another, I promise me, all three of me, that things will change.
I have gotten pretty good at lying to myselves.