He was three minutes late for the interview we scheduled. His military-wired clocks had been blinking twelve hundred hours for nearly two years by then. He never would have been late if it were two years prior. But I still appreciated his promptness, being that three minutes to the scheduled time was still impressive, quite uncharacteristic actually, with the carelessness of practically everything nowadays. Nobody was on time for anything. It was as if the magnetic fields that governed the earth were beginning to manipulate everyone’s time displays on their cell phones and kitchen appliances. But it wasn’t that. It was the passing of the baton from Generation X to the Millennials. We were constantly fumbling with it, tripping ourselves up, and running toward an ever-moving finish line on an illuminated screen.
Kevin walked into the coffee shop in mesh shorts and a t-shirt at 13:03. He was handsome and manly. His arms were thick bark of muscle; his hands calloused and clean. I shook one of them, squeezing hard. Kevin’s face was that of a man his age—bearded stubble, full cheeks with the glow of an expecting father. I felt like a kid despite being nineteen days his superior. I had nineteen days of development on him, he nineteen days behind, but nineteen days that didn’t hold him back from surpassing me in terms of manliness, of figure, of courage, of bravery, of world geographical awareness.
We ordered our drinks at the counter and sat down at a small table near the door. He asked about my writing. I asked him about Afghanistan.
“It was Afghanistan, right? Not Iraq?”
He spoke of cities and villages I never heard of. How first world of me. How stupid. How American. And despite his domestic blood, thankfully still flowing and well-contained, his sense of geography was far superior to mine. If he died there, I wouldn’t even be able to give you an idea of location. Just somewhere over there. But Kevin, he was a seasoned veteran. He was sharp. Even his parents had one of those giant U.S.A. stickers on the back of their caravan, where each state had its own sticker, only filled in on the map once the family van had traveled through.
Ask me state capitals. Ask me which oddly shaped line is Syria or Lebanon. Have me point out countries on a map. Any continent will do. Watch me stretch my collar and glisten with sweat. Hear how I blame the American education system.
Kevin placed his cell phone on the table and pressed record. He said to talk as I would normally. “It’s just a paper for school,” he reconfirmed from our phone call earlier in the week. “I figured since you’re a local author, this would be perfect.”
I was talking about a kid’s book I wrote. But the more I talked, the less I wanted to. I interrupted his questions with my questions to him. I asked about the war, where he was stationed, his day-to-day.
“Were you ever scared?” I asked.
“Every second,” he said.
I remember he used to have a mustache, macho and proud like someone I’d see in a bar and probably hate. I saw the picture online, brown and gray and mountaintop, he and his sunglasses and his sun-gleamed rifle, posing on some peak well above a city whose name I can’t pronounce, can’t pinpoint on a map, can’t fathom as real outside of television dramas or on The World Post section of Huffington Post.
A week prior, a guy at work asked if I considered myself aware. That’s the word he used: Aware—like it was some religion I could have grown up with. So, I noted my bias, my surroundings of corporate media, and said, “As much as I can be, I guess.” But I was looking at Kevin and feeling so stupid. I started talking about the dumb kids’ book I wrote. About an umbrella who hated the rain. Well, there are kids who hate the rain. Kids with sand-colored skin, saturated and starving, and there we were in Starbucks talking about my book.
The cell phone was still recording our conversation. It had absorbed details about the plot of the book, the writing process, my inspiration. I tried to sound upbeat. Like an author for kids. There was a pause, and I asked across the table if it was worth it—his military service. “What about your future?”
I didn’t ask if he killed, if he watched his buddies kick dogs on dirt-fogged roads.
“Um, yeah. I think so,” he said. “I didn’t have much going for me here. I couldn’t afford school. I was kind of going nowhere.”
He chuckled. “I can’t get anything now. I’ve applied damn near everywhere. I’ll probably just stick with the union. I’m just going to school because it’s free.”
Another lifelong blue-collar veteran. But I felt that he was different. Kevin deserved a chance to be great. I wanted to tell him that, but I didn’t. I felt that we were both holding back so much.
“I have to buy your book still,” he said. “I’ll put it on the shelf for the baby. Only a couple more weeks now.”
“Crazy,” I said. And I sipped my privilege from a to-go cup.
“I think we’re all set.”
Kevin’s coffee was still full. He carried it outside, shaking my hand and thanking me. At the same time, the sun was setting behind houses made of mud. Bomb-vest children kissed their mothers by the bus stop. I unlocked my car and got in.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tara Sturm