A Face I Recognize
The first few hours after I arrive back on the ground are hectic--I sit through a mess of late-night briefings, and struggle to find my bag. Things smooth out a bit after they separate those of us taking leave in Germany, and after a few more quick briefs, I'm able to settle down in a transient housing tent. Still, all told, I don't end up getting to bed until almost 4 a.m.
I sleep late--the other soldiers going stateside have a much longer day ahead of them, but I am fortunate enough in that my only obligation is to link up at SATO travel at 1600. I do some light shopping at the PX, and grab a bite to eat. In a few hours, I'll have to get moving again, but before I can go to my appointment at the travel office, there's one more thing I have to do.
We have to arrive at the airport in civilian clothes if we choose to take leave in Europe--it's a security thing, and honestly I'm glad--I've been dying to get rid of this uniform. There's something in a uniform that masks the true nature of the person within, and while I understand the necessity in that, there are times when I chafe against it. Fortunately, Anne sent me a change of clothes some months back for just this reason, and since I haven't showered or shaved in a couple of days, I decide to take advantage of my morning and conduct a certain long-awaited ritual.
The showers here on Al Saleem are clean--much cleaner than the ones I'm used to up North. The hot water always runs, and the water pressure is good, so as I strip down to conduct my personal hygiene this morning, I resolve to not rush through my shower for once, as I am so often forced to do. The shower trailer is empty anyway, this morning, so this makes keeping my resolution easier.
I take my time, soaking up the hot water and letting it ease the knots out of my muscle tissue. I just did a week on tower guard, plus two missions back-to-back before that, so I'm still a little sore from the body armor. The hot water feels great running down my skin, and it feels even better to slough away some of the accumulated funk of the last few days. I scrub and rinse myself until I feel more refreshed than I have in months, after which I turn off the water and throw back the curtain. I have a very specific order in which I want to do things next.
As crazy as it sounds, when you spend so much time dressed like everyone else, it actually makes you more concerned about your appearance. I've dreamed for months about what I would wear when I came home, and Anne didn't disappoint. That woman reads my mind some days, I swear. I throw on my best pair of dark jeans first, after which I brush my teeth and set to shaving.
I'm actually shaving with new blades for once--a thing which I take too little time to appreciate most days. I manage not to cut myself even once, and by the time I put away my razor and shaving cream, I'm ready for the next portions of the ritual. I've been saving my last set of contact lenses for just this occasion, and so with great care I put away my delicate wireframe spectacles in favor of something a little less conspicious. My eyes have to adjust for a minute as I slide the lenses in. They tear up a bit as they struggle to accustom themselves again to the small, invasive sheaths. I blink a few times. My vision swims into focus. I smile. I didn't realize up til now just how good it feels to pretend, even for a minute, that one can see with one's own eyes again. This feeling I relish as well.
Finish up toweling off my hair, after which I set to completing the task of getting dressed. My clothes are laid out neatly on the bench, and I don each vestment carefully, and in a specific order. First the socks, followed by my favorite pair of old Timberlands. The braided leather belt--more practical for me, being so slender--comes on next, but even though the belt does little to keep the jeans from hanging low on my hips, I don't mind. The faint view of "man-lines"--Anne's terminology for the V-shaped muscle group just above my groin--will make a pleasant surprise for her the first time she sees me again shirtless. Speaking of the shirt, this is the final garment I put on; an old black woven T-shirt of which I've always been particularly fond. I raise my arms above my head and struggle into the thing. It slides down with a feeling of comfort and familiarity I can't describe. The sleeve cuffs are a bit tighter now around my biceps, and this too pleases me. Anne will be happy to see I've put on weight.
I turn away for a sec, making sure to check my ACU's for the essentials--wallet, dog-tags , ID, cigarettes, gum--and with those items at last secure, I take a deep breath and turn to inspect myself in the mirror.
And after six long months, I finally see again a face I recognize.
It's not nearly as bad as I thought. The old me--20-something male, about 5'8 and 145 lbs. Slender, but surprisingly enough well-muscled. Tattoos running down the insides of both forearms. Dark blonde hair, harshly-faded, spiky, with dark eyes and a full, almost girly mouth; which I hate but my wife describes as "sensual." She's full of shit. Dressed low-key, but with just a hit of James Dean panache. It may sound vain, but it's a trip. I've become so used to the dull-gray, bespectacled blur of my duty uniform that I'm actually shocked to see myself outside of it. I'm really surprised--I look good. I look damned good. I draw closer to inspect my shave--no nicks or missed patches, and as I pull back, I take a full measure of myself and am unable to keep from smiling. My reflection returns the gesture, gracing me with a wry smirk.
How's it goin', handsome?
Not bad, I silently reply. Ready to go back to Germany? Break some hearts?
You know it. I have to smile wider. I turn away, laughing at myself as I gather my things. I re-emerge into the harsh Kuwaiti sun feeling energized, and as I make my way back to my tent, I bask in the glow of a refreshment I have not known for some time.
Roll out the red carpet, bitches, I think to myself.