Isaac was a bad soldier.
This is not what Isaac was. This was how Isaac described himself to me on a plane, from Dulles Airport to Logan, on the second half of my trip to Boston to see my friend Ben get married.
What Isaac was... Isaac was Jewish. He was an Israeli. He was also an American, he lived in Virginia, and he missed the big city, but his wife, because Isaac was a husband too, liked Virginia, liked being away from all the people, liked living some place with less noise where she needed a car. And Isaac was father, he had a son. Isaac supported his family by working on computers -- the job he was on the plane for, as it turned out, was for MIT, where the computer geniuses apparently needed him to fix their faulty network.
Isaac also had a girlfriend once, a girlfriend who was a writer, who published a book, and an entire chapter was about her relationship with him. That bit he shared when I told him I was a writer. With some excitement, he asked me if I did that too, if so much of my "profession" was just regurgitating things from my life, memoir-style, if the bulk of the characters in my writing were just people I knew in my life. People I went to school with. People I slept with. People I met on a plane.
I was still a little tipsy at this point, so honestly, I told Isaac, that yes, pretty much. But not to tell anyone. It would kind of ruin things.
But I didn't really want to talk about that, or myself. I stepped on that plane incredibly drunk, especially for me, and I wanted to talk about Isaac.
Because Isaac called himself a bad soldier.
When I sat down on the plane next to Isaac, neither of us expected to talk. I had too much to drink in Dulles, and was going back and forth as to what my non-drinking friends would now think of me, and what it would be like to arrive at the airport to meet with Julia three sheets to wind -- my first thought was, hilarious, but then my better thought was rude. I was also wondering just how rude it might have been had I come out with some NCIS-learned military phrase like "semper fi" or "hoo-rah" at Frank back at the bar.
I figured I'd just need time. The flight was an hour and a half, and when I looked over at Isaac [of course, I didn't know his name yet], he had a book in one hand, and his phone in the other. I was already queuing up Sleater-Kinney, and was rooting in my bag for a book myself. And then, it happened. Or rather, it didn't.
There was going to be some wait time before take off.
So, I turned to my left and introduced myself.
Isaac grew up in Israel, in Tel Aviv, and naturally was required to do his one year of service in the Israeli military. He really didn't want to serve his country, not out of any disdain for it, or because he identified as a pacifist, but just because he didn't feel like the battlefield was any sort of place for him. When they put a gun in his hand, he felt clumsy, like he didn't know what to do with it. In basic training, he was put through the wringer, because he clearly didn't want to be there, and when he hesitated to discharge his weapon during training, one overzealous drill sergeant hauled off and kicked him in the ribs. Another screamed at him like a coward.
He called himself a coward, while we sat there, talking. He talked about getting kicked, and spit on. About talking to people who were supposed to be the enemy, and them feeding him, and treating him... in some cases better than his allies did. Isaac also that he had peers, fellow soldiers, and some superiors who sympathized, who understood that this was not a place for him. But there wasn't any sort of choice here, this was mandatory. The best of them helped him, assured him he'd get through it. And he tried, every chance he got to make things easier on himself, to do just that, and get through.
The man in charge of him, whoever that was in his wing of the military [I swear most of these details were left out by Isaac -- though, admittedly, I was still pretty sloshed], asked Isaac at some point, where he wanted to be assigned, to what unit, not what area. Even back then, he was good with computers, and told the placement agent this, and they recommended to him a new organization, called the engineering division. Which wasn't computers, but at least didn't sound like it would have him out in the field.
As it turned out, the engineering division dealt with unexploded ordinances on the battlefield.
And as a part of the engineering division, Isaac was sent to Lebanon, when Lebanon was not a place you really wanted to be. I don't know how long we'd been airborne, when he started telling me about the shelling, and when, I think, he first called himself a bad soldier. Because the thing about the shellings Isaac said, was that you had all these explosives just falling down on top of you, and it might look like one was coming down miles away, and the next thing you knew, the guy beside you could just be gone. And dealing with that was when people really started to lose it, when the good soldiers would realize with every whistle, with every explosion, no matter how far away they seemed it could be one with their name on it -- the good soldiers all started to lose it a little. Get nervous. Jittery. On edge. They wouldn't walk around unless they had to, and always with their heads down, always with manic eyes towards the sky, wondering.
Lot of chain-smokers, he said. We laughed about that.
And that was how Isaac knew he wasn't a good soldier. Because in Lebanon, Isaac did something that most of the other Israeli men and women didn't do -- he checked out. In a world where the sky was literally falling down around his head, Isaac stopped caring, he didn't cringe, he didn't flinch, he wasn't afraid. Isaac reached that point where, not wanting to be there, knowing he had to be, he didn't give up so much, as he just stopped giving a damn. He talked about it as a very casual thing, compared it to deciding you were never going to look both ways before crossing the street again. But even then, he said that wasn't quite right, because he wasn't intentionally being reckless, he was just done being scared and careful.
Isaac felt he'd live through this, or he'd die and it wouldn't be something he'd have to worry about anymore anyway.
We talked the whole flight, right up until we got off the plane and he waved me a hasty good by. He was so forthcoming, about everything, about his life, his family, and his time as a self-professed bad soldier, and his war stories, if you could call them that [and I can think of no more appropriate name for them] as sobering as you might expect, both figuratively and literally, and I didn't stumble or struggle, I didn't need anyone pushing me out of the gate.
I headed to baggage check, not because I had checked any, but because that was always a sure exit, and called my grandmother, and then my mom [the most juvenile and the most adult thing you can do upon arriving somewhere]. And after making one final call, and wandering around in the front of Logan Airport for a bit, I was greeted by my lovely companions for the rest of my day in Boston, as well as most of the weekend -- the Cooper sisters, my old friend Julia, and her sister, Anna.
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