Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Dimitri sat in Arnie’s living room, dumbstruck, when Arnie showed him his enlistment in the U. S. Air Force. Dimitri’s sister Anastasia, who was Arnie’s trophy wife and whom Arnie called “Asha,” sat by her husband on the sofa.
“Kak-what the fuck?! You’re going to go bomb Osama back? What about your career, your tenure track,…”
“Ok, ok, Dimitri, cut it out, stop worrying. I’m all squared away. My assistant professorship is on hold, and the department chair thinks I’ll get tenure credit while I’m in theater. I started investigating this last year, right after Yom Kippur. It was what you said, something about being reconstituted from the ashes at Auschwitz when we came up at Canal Street to get ferried across to Bayonne. I’m sitting in synagogue all Yom Kippur and thinking, “Asha’s pregnant. What do I tell our baby when he asks me what I did when my country was attacked?” Asha and I talked about it, and I started exploring volunteering to serve in Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany. They sorta told me, “Thanks, but no thanks!”
“My reaction precisely. They told me that so much body armor is getting shipped to Uzbekistan that our troops are going to covered from the groin up. “
“So they told you, ‘Don’t come?’”
“No, they said, “Come, but be ready to treat the locals. And learn a little Tajik or Uzbek.”
“Right, so I got someone in World Languages to give me some Uzbek training tapes. Then I went off to Ft. Bragg for Basic Training. That sucked. I’m thirty-two, I used to play competitive tennis, and I used to spend nap time on rotation on our treadmill. But I never hiked in steel-toed boots with a sixty-pound ruck (that’s military-speak for “backpack”) on my back. And I never, ever imagined myself chanting that puerile crap they say to get through the march.”
Dimitri restrained a look of puzzlement. Ivy Leaguers sprinkled their speech with vocabulary like, “puerile,” that Dimitri last saw while preparing for his verbal SAT.
“So what were the calls between you guys like?” Dimitri looked from his wing chair first to Anastasia, then to Arnie.
“I just told him every night to leave off the girl recruits.”
“I told her back that since I was too tired to move anyway, it didn’t much matter, and if they sent me to Afghanistan as they promised, all the women were in burqas anyway.”
“I told him about Mama’s story about Soviet fashion – “
“Oxymoron,” Dimitri interrupted his sister.
“Exactly, Glupui, kak buik – moronic like an ox.” Dimitri and Anastasia laughed.
Arnie reveled in the image of stupid oxen parading Soviet fashion and Central Asian burqas. He returned to the current topic of discussion.
“Well, the reason we asked you up here is to talk about what’s happening next. I ship out to Afghanistan next Monday.”
“Like I said, everything is settled here, except that Asha is pregnant. I’d like you to consider transferring to Princeton and finishing your education degree here. Asha might have an easy pregnancy, or maybe not. But you’re her brother. You’ll save on rent, you’ll get a great degree, You might even be the first family member to see your new cousin born into the world. I’m only planning a two-year tour of duty. I want to set up a decent trauma unit there, train some staff, save some lives and go home. Maybe I’ll even learn something about trauma surgery. I should get leave for the baby’s birth, and eight months later, another short leave. Then I’m done.”
Arnie paused. Dimitri continued.
“Arnie, Stasia, you know that Stasia and I hardly talked from when I left home to when you got married.”
Anastasia continued, significantly, in Russian. Arnie did not understand. “Я сожалею об этом, димя. Я интересовался той же самой вещью, которой ты был; не похожение на наших родителей. Таким образом мы стали, как говорит, карикатуры нас непосредственно, чтобы не походить на них. Я хочу знакомиться с тoбoй снова. Пожалуйста скажите да. (I’m sorry about that, Dimya. I was interested in exactly the same thing as you were, not to be like our parents, To that end, we became, how do you say it, caricatures of ourselves in order to avoid being like them. I want to get to know you anew. Please say yes.)”
Arnie did not interfere with the obvious impoliteness of his wife’s switch from English. He sat, quietly, in his white country club tennis shorts, socks slightly dusted from the clay surface, and his white polo shirt with the Princeton insignia on the front left panel. He leaned into the exchange between the Kats siblings, his fingers pressed together in a subconsciously learned gesture of control.
Perhaps the “steepling” gesture worked. Perhaps it was Anastasia’s appeal to regain the lost opportunity of fraternal kinship. Perhaps it was the opportunity to bring dates, maybe even Samantha and her Ukrainian girlfriend, to the palatial digs of a Princeton professor. In any case, Dimitri’s savings were dwindling and the degree was still at least a year off, so despite the insult to his pride gnawing away at the periphery of his machismo, Dimitri agreed.