On our way out of Iraq in 2008 after our second pump to the desert we are delayed by a week of shamal winds and sandstorms that tint our world to ochre rust. There is no difference between sand and air. Running water becomes pointless. When we wake in the mornings our eyes are crusted shut by saline and dust. The muck cakes to the corners of our mouths, stains the exposed creases of our faces, aging us like bad stage make-up. Sand grinds down our molars and incisors and sends tinges of nerve pain through our fillings and we wash it down our gullets with sludge water, into our intestines where it’s absorbed and sweated back out of our pores.
We don’t know it yet, but years later in the dead of night we’ll not be able to sleep because sleep won’t come easy after the war when we’re trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure out why we went to war in the first place. We’ll sneak downstairs to our basements, or pull down attic doors and wince at the creaking echo of wood on metal, or we’ll tiptoe to our garages or sheds or forgotten closets and sift through boxes of Christmas and Halloween decorations until we find a pilfered olive drab ruck or decaying cardboard box or thick plastic footlocker. We’ll run our hands over its surface, goose flesh rising on our arms.
Inside we’ll find that dust in crumpled seabags and in the pockets of old utilities and creases of stolen gear. It will stink of eons, a stale flat stink that will leave our mouths dry and our throats looking like the parched hardpan on which we used to piss. Finding the sand is like stumbling upon old nude photos of an ex and as our groins stir to life we’ll look over our guilty shoulders for our wives and girlfriends and partners. We’ll rub the grit between our forefingers and thumbs, the grains echoing like artillery against the deltas and islands of our fingerprints. Our hearts will race and we’ll stand inside our warm domestic houses remembering the thing we used to be in the desert, and we’ll know we won’t ever be able to leave the thing or the desert behind.
Long hairs on our scalps will trap the grime, which will powder our eyelashes and stick to our nose hairs, and will seep over us like a spilled shadow, curling around us like a cat’s tail.
We’ll pack the trinkets up and we’ll sneak to our bathrooms to shower and remove any evidence of our indiscretion, our wives and partners still dozing. The dust will leach red and thick from our bodies and spread to the chlorinated water collecting at our toes like blood trails from a shark bite.
Some of us will shave our heads right there in the bathroom, thinking the dust is an infestation like lice. Thinking maybe we can get at it without our obstructing forest of hair. We’ll scrub and scrub and grate and rake and we’ll slough off dead dogs and detained children and widowed women. They’ll collect around our soaking legs and we’ll beg their lifeless and horrified eyes for forgiveness but they’ll already be circling the drain.
Out of the tub, skin steaming, noses full of potpourri and feminine soaps, we’ll stand in front of the fogged mirror, suck in slack hairy paunches, slap lobstered flesh, and remember when we could bench-press more than our own weight and run three miles in eighteen minutes.
We’ll remember the times we overpowered one another in the dirt after flak jacket runs and how we fireman-carried the weak during battalion hikes through sunbaked hills. We’ll think of the boy in basic training who pissed his trousers, and the stench of barracks rooms full of molded low-pile carpet and Pledge surface cleaner, and the hair dryer feeling of being in a Humvee turret behind an Abrams. Our faces will flush at the thought of our own disappointments, our own missed chances, our ignorance, our cruelty.
Then we’ll slide back into bed under our six-hundred-thread-count sheets and our oral print duvets next to whomever and stare at the ceiling hoping and praying that none of the dust remains, but also hoping we missed some crevice, some fold of skin. Thinking that maybe if we wash it all away we might finally be able to get a decent goddamn night of sleep, but afraid that if and when we do rid ourselves of the chaff that we might disappear ourselves, be washed down the drain, our skin and sinew and bones sliding into the blackness.
The above is an excerpt from Matt Young’s memoir Eat The Apple, which will be published by Bloomsbury on 22 February 2018. (US edition, UK edition)
Photograph © Elliott Plack