Proving Grounds – Part 9

After cresting the summit of the mountain, and as Fox Company descended from the peak, Private Romero felt within his core – a transformation. Upon reaching the base of the mountain, he and the other new Marines would receive their Eagle, Globe, and Anchors, a small and innocuous trinket of no significant monetary value, but signifying the culmination of recruit training and the creation of a new Marine warrior. It was the mark of brotherhood to a militant cult, and fraternity of arms. After earning his EGA, and a well-deserved warrior’s breakfast, complete with all the waffles, eggs, fruit and juice he could stomach, the company was given a few minutes of personal time. They were to hygiene themselves and recuperate before preparations began for their graduation and the trip back to San Diego.

Romero took this opportunity to cleanse himself of the days of trekking through the sand and expeditions through the mud. He enjoyed a long, hot, soothing shower, the longest he had been given in his time aboard the depot. As the water flowed down his face, it carried with it the caked on dirt and mud as it eased the strain on weary muscles.

Leaving the shower, clothed in a small towel and with his shaving kit in hand, he had the chance to look himself in the mirror. It was the first time he had really examined himself in months. He was surprised to see that he had gained ten pounds; not of fat, obviously, but of lean muscle. His chin and jawline had grown defined and his leg muscles had become broad, as had his shoulders. His body, though exhausted, had become hard and he no longer held doubts over his martial capabilities or measurements of himself against other men. He finally looked like a man himself, one he didn’t quite recognize yet, but which pleased him nonetheless. He had pride from a new sense of self-respect he had never known before. This image before him in the mirror had become what he had set out to be three months ago; something others would respect. This was true, if for no one else, than at least within his own mind.

The final days of boot camp were mostly spent preparing uniforms for final inspection and in drill rehearsal for graduation. Graduation day was filled with all the pomp and ceremony only known to those who have marched in a military parade. The band was adorned in highest regalia, grand songs were played, salutes were rendered, and six hundred Marines, young and old, marched across the Parade Deck on display for excited family and onlookers from around the country. Nathaniel’s family, along with the families of hundreds of others, greeted their new Marines before finally departing from the depot. He was finally free to return home. Free of the constant presence of Drill Instructors, Romero would enjoy a much needed ten day leave, before setting off again, this time for the School of Infantry.

He arrived home the next day. After a sleep of the kind he had not experienced in three months, first on his mind was the girl who was with him on the day that he began this fateful journey. The lovely girl in the short pleated skirt was starting college only a short few hours’ drive away in Albuquerque. After his mother and grandmother had their turns showcasing their son to the entire town, Nathaniel left to see her. The young warrior set his sights to a personal mission, one he’d rehearsed in his mind many times already. As he made his way across the desert, he imagined the warm welcome he assured himself he was destined to receive.

Nathaniel would need that pride very soon. As it turned out, all that training to make him into a warrior of the modern age did little to grant him the necessary abilities of seduction needed to conquer any would-be lover. At his heart, he was still just a shy young man and not yet the fighting Casanova he believed himself to have magically become.

Nathaniel arrived at her apartment late in the evening. When she opened the door, his heart quivered when he saw her for the first time in months. Standing in the door with her short shorts, tight fitting crop top tee-shirt, and seductively adorned in a voluptuous shade of red lipstick, she still just as enticing and beautiful as ever and still rightfully the vision of his nightly imagination.

When he set foot in the apartment, what he didn’t expect to see, the last thing he expected to see, was the presence of a third someone else. He had imagined something private, quiet, and intimate. What he hadn’t expect to see was a man already present. She introduced him and he introduced himself as her boyfriend. He was a soft and unshaven mass of humanity, oozing from the edge of the couch opposite the chair where Nathaniel sat. With holes in his clothing dangling in shreds from his gangling and emaciated arms, and not looking as if he had bathed in at least a few days, Romero wondered how such a person could sit there with such a cocky, assuming look on his face. Oh, he was in a band? How… interesting. He’s a Philosophy Major? Stunning.

The two sat across from one another in the living room. After the rock star spent an uncomfortable amount of time eyeing Nathaniel’s high-and-tight haircut, he asked, “So you like to kill people and stuff?”

What kind of question was that? What type of idiot would ask a person such a thing? The mordant little comment left Nathaniel internally infuriated. Nathaniel didn’t need to find out that this swine was the girl’s current boyfriend to hate him with a fervent sincerity. Ironically, Romero was wondering then if a chop to the boorish oaf’s Adam’s Apple would, in fact, kill him or just keep him silent on the floor for a while.

“You know that all of you really just work for the energy companies, right? I mean, you should know that it’s your job to murder millions of people all to make the rich richer. There’s a book about it, ‘The war racket’ or somethin’ like that. Some old General wrote it. It would blow your mind. You should read it if you’re gonna fight their wars and all.”

“Have you read it?” Romero asked with glaring eyes at the pustule.

The other man paused with his jaw dangling stupidly. It seemed he hadn’t considered being challenged on the need to have a working knowledge on what he proselytized. Gathering himself, he regained back his snarky grin and said, “Nah, I already know that war is stupid, I mean, no offense. You just didn’t know any better before they got you in the system. It’s all just about neo-colonialism and taking over the world, anyway. I just hope you don’t get yourself killed for some rich man’s war or come back with a brain disorder after blowing up a village or something.” He laughed, “Hey. You should get with your bosses and try to tell them to talk about things instead of just having some drone bomb a school or something to bits.”

Nathaniel was seething. Caustically he sneered, “Thanks for enlightening me. I’ll bring it up at the next meeting.”

The boy was a charlatan, speaking on subjects he knew nothing about with some deluded voice of authority. Whatever truth he may have stumbled upon between his little band’s performances in the basement of whatever friends’ he had, were overshadowed by the volumes of politically bent misinformation in the deeper chasms of the internet. He was really just another twenty-two year-old stoner, living off his parents while couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another. His type were little more than arm-chair philosophers and self-appointed experts on all matters they took no actual part in, regurgitating it to others any chance they got. Romero was revolted that people like this were allowed to have influence. How, he wondered, could any girl be attracted to it? He was disgusting. Especially girls like her! He had enough grease in his hair that Romero could keep his weapon moving smoothly for weeks. She was supposed to have liked strong guys, manly guys… dudes with big arms. What happened to dangerous guys? The only thing that made this idiot dangerous was the risk of catching head lice.

The awkward and very unromantic visit lasted another hour or so, mostly spent ignoring the opining of the philosopher-poet and his inept peace propaganda. Still fully dressed and uncomfortably chaperoned, Nathaniel began to become aware that there was no point to him being here. He had overstaying a welcome. The girl had never intended for him to stay long and his spot was taken, anyway. Added to the sexual ambivalence of the girl whose attraction had occupied the nightly dreams of his entire last summer, were the glares sent his way by the soft and unshaven worm across the room. He gave none-to-subtle hints to move along between opportunities to belittle the militant. The guitarist Philosophy major made no attempt to hide his hands all over her, marking his territory like toy terrier pissing on all the furniture.

Romero had enough. Realizing that nothing was going to happen, not to mention feeling completely foolish for having believed it would, he left. He took with him little more than a friendly and deeply platonic hug, and a new and profound loathing for guitarists, Philosophy majors, and the unshaven.

Giving up his venture, he left to make the long drive home in painful silence. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to happen. Perhaps she was supposed to leap into his arms and then they would magically arrive in her bed. How had that worked so many times in his imagination before? Why did that even make sense?

This was what disillusionment felt like. This would be the first of many times he would see the reality of the choices he had made. As he sat down in the driver’s seat of the car, a new question began to brew.

What was he supposed to do now?

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