*** I was on night watch. I slept through the hottest part of the day and got up at sundown to stand with a gun outside a run-down palace-y thing that had been turned into a hospital. We stood in pairs, and they always put a girl with a guy. They usually put me with this guy, Rodriguez, who could literally spend hours talking about his car. He had this Honda that he'd spent thousands of dollars on, customizing the engine and the headlights and the stereo. It was in storage near Fort Riley until they sent us home. He talked about it like normal people talk about their kids, or possibly their dogs.
I didn't talk about much. Nobody wants to hear about dropping out of West Fargo High School, or driving to St. Paul three different times for three different abortions of three different guys' babies. Even my turnaround wasn't all that interesting: found Jesus, got my GED, joined the Army, lost Jesus, went to Afghanistan. That's pretty much all anyone needed to know, and it's more than I told anyone in Kabul. Who the fuck cared? They were all more interested in exactly the kind of stuff back home that I didn't have any of.
So I'd listen to Rodriguez talk about his car for a couple of hours. He knew everything about that car, like he had a blueprint of every gear and a chart of every performance statistic in his head. Then, the girls would show up. They were women, I guess, because they were all married or even widowed and most of them had children, but it was hard to think of them as women because they were my age. It started out with just one of them, this girl named Maryam who came tiptoeing up the street carrying a candle one night around 23:00. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hello. English. Thank you."
She kept repeating it and repeating it until I figured out she wanted me to teach her English. I wanted to explain to her that it was really dumb to ask me. I can hardly spell. But I guess I look like what people think of when they think of Americans: tall and pale with blonde hair. So I pointed to some things and said the words, and she repeated them, and the next night she came back with five of her friends. I started hoarding the special FPO stationery and envelopes you were supposed to use to write home so they could practice writing the alphabet. They brought clothes and stuff from their houses so I could tell them the words. I lay in bed every afternoon while I came up with ways to teach family words or animal words.
They'd been coming every night except Fridays for, like, three months. They didn't exactly speak English, but I could usually understand them, which was kind of cool. They knew lots of words and even had kind of figured out some of the grammar. It was amazing how fast they could memorize stuff. I guess when you don't have all that shit from TV and music and school filling your head, there's all this room to learn whatever you want.
And I think they were also the bravest and smartest ones, the only ones who were brave enough to sneak out in the middle of the night and bug a random Army guard to teach them. They all wore head scarves and long dresses instead of full burqas when they came for lessons, which only the most independent women did.
That night, they'd all brought food from home so we could learn food words. They'd asked the day before if they could do that. I almost said no because I knew it would be a really big risk. The Afghani nationals didn't have much to their names, and the problem was especially that they were hungry and we couldn't give them anything. Like, my sergeant was actually kind of happy when I told him these girls were coming to learn English, but he gave me a lecture on how I couldn't bring them any food or all kinds of people would show up and expect it. I guess English class would only attract people who were really serious.
They brought all this weird food that I couldn't identify, or that I only knew the Pashto names for. They giggled when I shook my head and said, "We don't have that in America." But we got a few things-- rice and bread and egg and garlic-- and they laughed a lot and let me try things even though I knew I'd have the runs really bad the next day from it.
We were all wrapped up in the lesson, and Rodriguez had to yell to get our attention. "Three ANs coming right at us," he said. "Get up, Lundberg!"
I got up and stood guard like I was supposed to. The girls looked behind them in the subtle way that Afghani girls seemed to be able to, turning their heads just a little and not moving their bodies at all. "Three brother of Faryal," Maryam said in a strangely soft voice, pronouncing each word carefully and separately. "Brother want Faryal now go home."
The ANs marched up close and tried to surround us, even though there were twice as many of us as them. One of them grabbed Faryal's arm roughly and pulled her to her feet. She made what looked like it was supposed to be a halfhearted struggle, but her brother yelped in pain and released her. His wrist was hanging limp. Faryal's eyes were huge, and her mouth hung open. She was the shyest girl in my class. She hardly even talked, and she used the tiniest voice when she did. And now, she'd just gotten so angry she'd broken her brother's wrist with power she hadn't known she'd had.
One of the other brothers started shouting things-- not at Faryal, but right at me. I recognized some of them as the words Afghani men used right before they spat at the female soldiers. The girls all looked horrified, and they scattered to hide behind Rodriguez. We weren't supposed to let any ANs past the line unless they were sick, but Rodriguez was smart enough to know he had to make an exception and protect them.
The brother who'd been swearing at me lunged suddenly towards me. I had some hand-to-hand training before they sent me to Kabul, but I never dreamed I'd have to use it. It was all instinct, but the next thing I knew, the man was sprawled thirty feet away from me, not moving. The other two men ran to help him. They lifted him onto their shoulders and disappeared into the night.
"Holy shit, Lundberg!" Rodriguez said. "What the fuck did you do?"
"I was defending myself," I said. "I was defending myself and these women."
"You just kicked that guy's ass half the way to Iraq, Lundberg."
I pointed a thumb behind me. "Hate to break it to you, Hot Rod, but Iraq's that way."
"Still-- Jesus Christ--"
The six girls, like churchmice, assembled in front of us. "We everybody now go home," Maryam said. "Thank you."
Faryal lagged behind for a moment. "Tonight I sleep Maryam house. Maryam no husband. Good house." She smiled wide. Strength lit up her eyes like torches. "Thank you, teacher." She took my hands in hers and shook them. "Thank you, teacher." She turned around and dashed off to join her friends.
When they were almost out of sight, Rodriguez said, "Lundberg, I think you should arm-wrestle me."
"You've got to be kidding," I said.
"No, serious," he said. "I want to see something."
There were no tables or anything that we could get to without leaving our post. "We can't do it now," I said. "We're on duty."
We finished out our shift, and Rodriguez was still harping on the arm wrestling thing. We found an empty exam area with a curtain and set up for a showdown. I was ready to use all my strength just to keep him from making me look like an idiot, but I pinned his arm like I was flipping a light switch.
"Something happened last night," Rodriguez said. "Like magic or something. A gift from Heaven." He smiled with one side of his mouth, and I thought, okay, I can admit he's kind of cute when he smiles like that. But I've been three times a fool for guys who were kind of cute when they smiled, so I stopped at daydreaming about kissing him.
I was going to go back to my tent and sleep off the memory of Faryal's brother's twisted face when he landed in the sand. "Wait," Rodriguez said. "Could you, like... pop my shoulder back in?" I hadn't noticed the pain in his voice when he'd said I'd gotten a gift from Heaven. It made me feel even more like I didn't deserve it, like I wasn't responsible enough or a good enough person.
Two days later, Rodriguez and I were on a plane back to America. The first thing he did when we got back to Fort Riley was take his Honda for a spin. He invited me to go with him, but I told him he ought to spend some time alone with the love of his life. I had a feeling it would be a long time before he'd see his car again. And I was right: a few hours later he came to tell me that they were sending him to England, and they wouldn't tell him why.
I went to the weight room and bench pressed my own weight to prove I could. Then, I took the longest, hottest shower of my life. I cut myself shaving my legs and watched the nick heal so fast I could see it sew itself up, like one of those time-lapse videos they show in science class. I cut myself again, on purpose, and I couldn't even feel it.
They were sending me into Ranger training. I wondered if they were sending all the girls like me, all the ones in the Army that they could find, and making some kind of secret Ranger division. If there were already me and Faryal, there had to be a lot of us.
There had to be a lot of them in Afghanistan, and what would they do? Before I went there, I might have thought they would rise up and overthrow the Taliban and live in peace and democracy, but there's all this culture telling them to be afraid of everything. They're afraid of men and even more afraid of Allah. They could have all the physical power in the world, but they'd still be afraid. I had a dream one night of Faryal getting stoned to death, like I heard women sometimes do when they get pregnant out of wedlock and stuff. She was too strong, and the stones couldn't kill her. And I was in fucking Kansas where I couldn't change anything.
I wanted to change things. It's funny how you start out changing yourself, in whatever lame way, and you end up wanting to fix everything. And I could, but I couldn't. I could have been rescuing kittens out of trees or putting an end to date rape, but I had orders to follow. The Army would probably send me to really dangerous places and tell me to kill people in the name of freedom. They might have been able to tell a hundred of us to do that.
I went to my new C.O. wearing my best stupid-girl smile. "Sir, I'd like to ask permission to decline Ranger training," I said. "It's not what I signed up for, and it's outside my specialization."
"You know, it's a big honor to get selected to be a Ranger," he said.
"Yes, sir," I said. "I understand, sir."
"This is a one-time offer, and you won't be made eligible again," he said.
"I know, sir. I-- I was hoping to take some classes, sir, and I wouldn't be able to do that as a Ranger." I'd never been one of the ones who was only in the Army to get money for college. I hadn't had those kind of goals. I'd hoped that I would stay in the Army forever. I didn't know what I'd do in the real world.
He frowned and looked through his paperwork like he was trying to find a solution. He already had one, though. There's always a Plan B for this stuff, a way for them to keep their hands clean. I tried my best to look naive while he chewed the end of his pen.
"How'd you like to go to Washington, Private?" he said.
"I'd like that fine, sir," I said.
I am the girl at every rally and every reception. If the President is speaking on the South Lawn, I'm standing behind a barrier with a sign that says I love America. If he's serving foie gras and pheasant to the Premier of Malaysia, I'm in a cocktail dress, chatting up embassy aides. Last week, I took down two snipers, a Hefla demon, and a guy who made a bomb threat on a White House tour. The news cameramen know to avoid getting me on tape, and I disappear into the middle of crowds.
If you see my face long enough to remember it, it's the last face you'll ever see.
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