Button-fly bell bottoms. A black leotard top and fringed suede jacket. Long straight hair hanging over her face like a veil. These were the markers of Karen’s tribe, and more recently, the black armband worn as a sign of resistance, as a sign of belonging. These things defined her, and she never understood how her brother Paul could wear that other uniform– olive drab and camouflage, a rifle slung across his chest.
She didn’t understand and she hated him for it, the older brother she had always adored, who once delighted her with magic tricks and taught her how to skate, who dried her tears when she fell off her bike. She was only ten when he left home, proud and excited to be a soldier, to be part of something bigger than himself. She was fifteen when he returned to live in their parents’ basement, hollow-eyed and fearful. Once Paul was back, fear was the air they breathed. Her parents exchanged desperate whispers. Karen kept her distance, grateful when Paul did not join them for meals, embarrassed in the presence of her friends when he emerged from his room with his shaved head and nervous tics.
When he first went to Vietnam, she had written him letters, and he wrote back long and funny descriptions of his buddies and the jungle and the people living in the villages. But over time his letters became shorter and less frequent, until finally the last one said only, “I wanted to do the right thing. But here there is no right thing.”
Paul had been home for six months when his mother found him. His parents were ashamed, that he had come home the way he did, that he ultimately took his own life. There was no funeral, no memorial, just some VFW post to plant a tree in his honor, or to read his name along with too many others during the monthly roll call. People stopped talking when Karen walked by, but she could hear “involved in drugs over there” and “some kind of mental breakdown” as she passed. No one talked about the fact he had been sleeping in the red mud for over two years, that his unit commander was involved in a shadowy investigation that was quickly brushed aside, that Paul often woke up crying when he slept at all.
Karen knew she was helping him with her marching and chanting, her allegiance to the opposition. That was what they needed most, just to come home. But once Paul was home, he was alone. At least over there he had the others. In the end, he had no one, not even Karen, who realized too late what had always been true– that she could never have loved anyone more.
I’m sorry, was all the note had said. She had judged him, she and her tribe, not realizing then that insisting on being different was just another way of seeing themselves as better. Her parents gathered his things for the landfill and Salvation Army, wanting to forget. Karen reached into the box as it was carried out and dropped the chain with Paul’s dog tags around her neck. She could only hope that wearing them would allow her to remember, and to be forgiven.
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