I rode a surge of purpose when the pandemic began, but bit by bit, things went back to normal. Peoples’ attitudes, specifically. Gotta keep grinding. Why, you ask? No one knows, but ’round and ’round it goes.
During my first semester at SFSU, the mother of all questions reared its ugly-ass head:
What’s it all for?
I never found meaning in pop culture-fads—in Kylie’s tweets or the hottest backside trending on Insta. I like older stuff, but not just because it’s off-beat or vintage. When I watch weird movies from decades past, I feel a sense of possibility and budding potential; their courage to be strange calls to my heart.
Anachronisms are my thing, which makes me one of them, I guess.
I know, I know—I’m a cliché. The crotchety old guy cursing at the new-fangled youngsters. (And yes—being nineteen, I know I’m technically a teenager.)
As a first-world kid from a well-off family, I’m painfully aware that I’ve been dealt a good hand. I’m right on track for a college degree, a job with benefits, and a 401k. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m destined for something more. Something different and strange, drawn from the stuff of dreams and fantasy.
I know happiness is subjective (miserable rich folks versus off-the-grid hermits who love their life) but it doesn’t change the fact that I loathe the idea of rotting in an office, raising 2.5 kids, and assimilating into a world of corporate doublespeak. I suspect a lot of people feel the same way as me; when I talk about ditching the 9-5, I’m usually met with hearty agreement. Yes—YES! Chained to a desk for forty hours a week? Kill me now! (it’s more by the way, if you add in commutes, a boss who measures your worth by how late you stay, and the fact that each day is actually 8-5, once you account for the unpaid lunch).
But when I try and elaborate, I earn a rueful chuckle or a blank stare. Half the time, I elicit some form of vague irritation. Give it a rest, will you? I wasn’t being serious. Often accompanied by a helping of side-eye.
I feel like an alien, doomed to live in a human body. And I say as much to anyone who will listen. Every so often, their eyes widen with fear and surprise, and I know I’ve spoken to their truest selves.
I leave Arts and Humanities, taking the same route I always take. Cut through the quad, past the food carts, and into the street where I’ve parallel parked.
I-280 is a couple blocks up. A half hour later, I pull into the lot of an Armed Forces Recruiting Center. I head inside, poke through a stand of glossy brochures, then pay a visit to recruiters from Army, Air Force, and Navy. (The Marine Corps office is dark and unoccupied.)
None of them resonate. Despite their promises of lusty groupies and the chance to become a Call of Duty badass,I remain unmoved. I can instinctively sense the pointless ennui; the meat-grinder system the recruiters endured, all so they could convince their younger selves (me, in this instance) to embark on a distorted version of the hero’s journey.
After the last one hands me their card, I step into the main hallway. As I turn to leave, a casual voice stops me in my tracks.
I turn around. Standing before me is the sharpest-dressed man I’ve ever seen. Blue pants, khaki short-sleeve, and a stack of ribbons that starts at his left breast pocket and nearly touches his meaty shoulder. His plastic nametag (it’d be chintzy on anything other than a Marine uniform) reads ATRIYA.
“Gunnery Sergeant Chris Atriya.” He walks up. We shake hands. “Looking to join?”
I study him carefully, thrown by his attitude. He’s interested in me—me as a person, not as a number.
“Thinking about it.”
“Don’t.” A rueful grin. “You’re not cut out for this.”
“That’s your pitch?” I ask incredulously.
“Usually, we say it in a bet-you’re-not-tough-enough kind of way, but I’m over all that.” He taps the ribbons atop his chest. “I’ve lived some dog years, if you couldn’t already tell by my stack of legos. So believe me when I say this isn’t for you.”
My gut twists, my heart cracks. Not because I want to shoot or fly or live on a ship—I was hoping for a glimmer of higher purpose. An escape from the tedium that stretches before me.
“C’mere.” He opens the door into a darkened recruiting office. The lights click on, and he steps behind a three-panel screen. “Gimme a sec.” Minutes later, he steps out in a sweatshirt and jeans. With his low-faded hair, he could easily pass as a beefy college student.
He offers his hand (again). I shake it.
“Chris Atriya,” he says, as if he hasn’t already said it.
“Jon Dough. Good to meet you.”
He angles behind a desk and takes a seat, gesturing for me to do the same. As I lower into the chair, he leans back and steeples his fingers.
“I’ve worked in this office for over a year. I haven’t recruited a single prospect.”
“What?” My brow wrinkles in confusion.
“Not a single one,” he affirms. “My boss lets me do whatever I want. Says I’ve got an ‘impressive record.’ ” He makes quote marks with his fingers. “Fine by me. Chest-thumping, war-cries…it gets real old, real fast. And that’s the stuff that recruiters gotta peddle.”
“So if you were anyone else—”
“They’d work my ass off.” He laughs. “Make no mistake—the Corps will get its pound of flesh. I’m an anomaly: the dirty secret of the whole ‘warrior’ thing.” His gaze turns distant. “It’s all good. Soon enough, I’ll be right back at it. Not here, though—not in recruiting.” His eyes refocus.
“Uh, not to be rude, but why are we talking if you’re not trying to recr—”
“Bear with me.” He regards me again, and I notice that his pupils are a strange shade of gray. Rich and deep, but only if you look directly into them. “What would you think if you were destined for greatness? What if I said it was your natural state?”
I scoff without meaning to. “I’d say you were crazy. I go to school, write half-finished stories, and ruminate deeply on meaningless philosophy.”
“I see things, Jon. Hidden things.” A flash of light glints off his eyes. “And I can see that everything you’ve done—every thought you’ve had and dream you’ve pondered—has set you up for massive change.”
I’m taken by a shiver, but I cover it up with a nervous chuckle. “You friends with Doctor Strange or something? Let me know how to find that monastery; it looks pretty dope. Look, Sergeant—”
“Chris. I think you’ve confused me with somebody else.” (Crap—don’t forget he’s a gun-toting war-guy. Better apologize before he gets angry.) “And sorry about the Doctor Strange remark, I didn’t mean to—”
He waves dismissively. “If we can’t take a joke, we’re truly lost.” He leans forward, pinning me down with those strange gray eyes. “I have an offer for you. If you want to sign it, feel free to do so. If not, we’ll go our separate ways and leave it at that.”
He opens a drawer, withdraws a single sheet of paper, and lays it carefully onto the desk. The front is marked by two bold words:
Below the words are a pair of signature lines.
“What do you say?” He places a pen in front of my hand.
I pick up the sheet and flip it over, making sure there’s nothing written on the back. “Is this a joke?”
He shakes his head. “It’s everything you’ve been asking for.”
“What?” I can’t keep the ridicule out of my voice. “What are you talking abo—”
“Doesn’t matter.” I lay the page down. He taps it twice with his right index finger. “Sign it or don’t. Sorry, but you don’t get details—that’s where people trip themselves up. They try and wait for all the info so they can stay inside their personal comfort zones. Which is pretty ironic, because they’re setting themselves up for long-term discomfort.”
“That’s dickish,” I argue. “You’re withholding information using a philosophical sleight of—”
“I don’t get details either. And trust me: even if I did, you wouldn’t want to know—they’d turn everything you see into a dusty shadow.”
“I don’t get it.” (This guy is nuts.) “You’ve seen combat, right?”
“More than I care for.”
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I’m trying to think of a polite way to recommend psychiatric help.
He sees right through it. “Don’t worry—I’m stable.” Now he’s amused. “The question is: are you? You’ll graduate college and get a job, but have you given any thought to what comes next? Do you think you’ll live a fulfilling life?”
My brain grinds to an absolute halt. You ever listen to someone, really listen, and your entire being responds to their words? He’s not addressing my surface persona, trained to navigate societal norms. He’s engaging with something a hell of a lot deeper—something beyond words or language. It doesn’t have a name. I don’t think it wants one.
Nevertheless, it needs to be heard.
I pick up the pen. My mind is a storm of conflicting emotions. My hand, however, is steady and sure.
I sign the paper.
He plucks the pen from my frozen fingers, then scrawls his name on the line next to mine.
“That was easy, huh?” He slaps the desk and gets to his feet. “Take it easy, Jon.” He shrugs into a jacket.
I blurt, “Wait, that’s it? I just signed a two-word contract.” The logical part of me—the one that worries about GPAs, scholarships, and getting enough hours as a part-time dog walker—has taken back over.
“You took a step toward what you wanted. Most of the time, that’s all you can do. Doesn’t matter if it makes any sense, because a deeper part of you knows the angles—it sees beyond the visible connections.” He puts his hands in his pockets and gives me an exasperated look. “Come on, you think you’d be happy with the 9-5? Living for the weekend, an extended vacation once a year, fretting and fussing over your white-picket life? There’s more to you, Jon. You know it in your heart. You know it in your soul.”
Chills. Again. “What next?” I manage.
“For you?” He holds the door open for me. “Things will get weird, but that’s not a bad thing. Trust me, working at a job would have driven you insane.”
“Okaaay…” I’m not quite sure of how to respond. But still, I want to know more. “Wanna grab lunch? I’m caught up on school, so—”
“Nah. I got me a date,” he pauses and smiles, “who would kick my ass if I stood her up.”
“She sounds pretty gnarly.” I walk through the door. He locks up behind me.
“You have no idea.” We stroll out the entrance and into the lot. “We share the same name: ‘Chris.’ She spells it with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i.’ ”
Chrys. I try it out in my mind. “Huh. It’s easier to think of her as a woman, now that you told me that.”
“Yep.” We head for his car, which is parked next to mine. “When I was younger, it would have been weird if a woman was named Chrys, ‘y’ or not. Funny how things change, huh?”
I feel obliged to agree. “Yeah. Funny.”
I get in my car and drive off the lot. A second later, it starts to pour—fat, heavy drops that clack against the glass. Typically, the rain would add drear onto my normal state of blah.
But this time, for some reason, I don’t mind.
I don’t mind at all.