When I was 21 and working as a quality assurance representative at a telemarketing agency, I’d recently ended a pretty serious relationship.
Not too long after the relationship ended, my roommate – at my silly, ill-conceived, and misguided recommendation – started dating my ex.
When your roommate is dating your ex (with whom you’re still on friendly terms), it’s easy to feel lonely. Both people who were once allies of yours suddenly become one another’s ally, and you’re suddenly very much on the outside.
If you don’t feel it at first, you will when she comes home early one morning wearing his shirt after a night spent at his place.
And you will, of course, have only yourself to blame. (Which doesn’t really make it any better…but worse, in fact, because you brought it on yourself…)
Around that time, I met a man who worked at the agency as a telemarketer. (Every now and then, even though I was in QA, I had to do some phone sales when they needed extra people on the phones. I was good, too, at telemarketing. Source of pride or shame, I’m not sure…)
The man was in his late forties or early fifties. He was short, thin, and had great hair–just long enough to look like it had grown out of its cut. Brown but turning gray, it curled and was starting to feather. He was wrinkled, but the wrinkles were the kind that came from smoking and drinking more than from age. He had a lot of wrinkles around his eyes, which made his smiles look extra nice.
They also made his angry squints look that much more severe.
He had a smile that drew you, big brown eyes, and a sort of southern charm, even though he lived in Minnesota. Sometimes after work, friends from the agency and I would cross the street to my apartment building and sit out front in the grass. He did, too, even though we were in our twenties and he was old enough to be our father. He’d plant himself cross-legged in the grass with the rest of us and talk, laugh, and have a beer.
He didn’t act old enough to be our father.
He was fun, erratic, youthful, a “partier.” Nothing about his hanging out with us felt awkward, the way it would if any other fifty-something were to socialize regularly with a group of twenty-somethings.
And he and I were closer than he was with any of the others. We would talk alone, and he would invite me over to his apartment to talk. And, more often than not, to have a drink. I remember not knowing what to expect the first time he invited me in. I prepared myself for bottles on the couch and floor, an overflowing sink. But it was neat. Organized. He had healthy, well-cared-for houseplants in the window. He kept his liquor in a kitchen cabinet, not somewhere it would always be right beside him.
He liked to talk about himself, about his time in Vietnam. Around the first and second drink, he would discuss his duty to help the alcoholics he knew by teaching them to “self-medicate.”
After too many drinks, the only person allowed to talk was him. Often, he would get lost sharing memories about how no one welcomed him home when he came back from Vietnam. Once, he cried, and shortly after that he yelled at me, slanted his eyes and snarled, and accused me of not listening to him–and next, accused me of not believing him.
On his friendly days, he would call me his angel. As lonely as I was at the time, that was nice to hear. Sometimes, he would say I was beautiful–which also felt good. Not in a romantic way, but in a, “Gee, thanks for saying such nice things at a time when I feel so down” way.
He would also say he wanted to “help” me. “I’m a doctor,” he would say. He used to be a medic with the 82nd Airborne, he said. I didn’t want him to help me, but apparently being around him helped, in some way. It gave me the same feeling of control he must have felt being around people he thought were worse off than he was.
When your allies have deserted you and there’s no one else, you can sometimes find someone in the least likely of places. Someone who needs someone more than you do. This man was that person for me. He was charming and upbeat enough, some days, to be fun. Enough to make me feel obligated to listen to him talk for hours when he was having one of his bad days, no matter how angry or insulting or offensive or downright mean he could be.
“It’s because of the war,” I reminded myself when he behaved that way. Extreme patience had to be exercised when, as a visit drew to a close, he would ask me – over and over, relentlessly – to stay five more minutes.
“Just five. Five! Five minutes. You can’t stay and talk for five more minutes?”
After those five minutes, he asked for another five. And another. And, really, it wasn’t asking. It was pleading. Urging. Whining. Guilting.
But he was difficult to leave, because as youthful and carefree as he could seem, he also seemed so tortured, tormented, unhappy, conflicted, angry, lonely, and maybe a little unstable. Now and then he would talk about a twin brother no one was really certain existed. You knew it was one of his worse days when his eyes were blue. Those were the days he wore contact lenses to “be” his brother.
When he was in a fun mood, I would watch him, study his eyes and face and try to imagine what he’d looked like when he was younger. He was an artist — loved to draw and paint and talk about drawing and painting (and also about his superior intuitiveness and sensitivity that came with his being an artist) — and struck me as someone who might have been a hippie when he was young.
Had I been able to travel through time, I’d have liked to go back to meet him at 19 or 20. I had a feeling he would have been pretty irresistible. Fun-loving, flirtatious, energetic, vibrant.
All of those qualities were there, somewhere, but they were so thickly coated with whatever he experienced in Vietnam – or upon his return – that not one of those otherwise compelling behaviors was expressed without a hint of bitterness, skepticism, cynicism, or sadness.
Whoever he was before he went to Vietnam was, sadly, dead.
There are so many ways to take a life. “Killing people is an art,” said a soldier friend of Ian’s one day.
The deployed military in Iraq and Afghanistan today don’t necessarily have to be shot, mortared, or otherwise physically wounded to be casualties. And sometimes I’m honestly not sure which is sadder–being physically killed, or having your brain change just enough so that you’re aware of who you once were, but you also know you can never be that person again. And the person you’ve become isn’t someone you ever wanted to be.
I lost touch with the vet long before I left Minnesota. He was too much for me. He had issues I couldn’t begin to understand, and that were so powerful and deep that I started to feel myself being pulled into the whirlpool of his misery.
But I never forgot him. One of the better times we had together, he took me with him to the house of one of his artist friends and we listened to some music and had a few drinks. Later, he gave me a drawing – “It’s the Angel of Darkness,” he said–and signed it for me–R.R.–with the note, “I love you today – and pray for you tomorrow.”
This is that drawing:
Ten years later, R.R. would become Homefront character Donny Donaldson.