I had my quarter-life crisis when I turned nineteen. It came about ten years early, but hey—why die slow, when you can do it all at once and move on to your next life? (If you believe in that sort of thing.)
I enjoyed a surge of purpose during the pandemic, 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. Midway into my first semester, the mother of all questions hit me in the face:
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 know, I know—I’m a cliché. The crotchety old guy cursing at the new-fangled youngsters on their new-fangled thingamabobs. And yes—being nineteen, I know I’m technically a teenager.
Call me crazy, but I think a lot of people feel the same as I do. When I talk about ditching the 9-5, I’m typically met with hearty agreement. Yes—YES! These forty-hour workweeks are killing my SOUL! (it’s more by the way, if you add in commutes, job-related activities like shopping for business casual, and the fact that each day is actually 8-5, once you account for the unpaid lunch).
But when I try and elaborate—when I go into detail about the road less travelled—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 was just spitballing; 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. I say as much to anyone who’ll listen to me. Every so often, their eyes widen with fear and surprise, and I know I’ve spoken to their truest selves.
I walk out of Arts and Humanities, taking the same route I always take: cut through the quad, past the food carts, and into the street where I parallel park.
I get on 280 and drive to a San Mateo strip mall, home to an Armed Forces Recruiting Center. Poke through a stand of glossy brochures, then pay a visit to Army, Air Force, and Navy. Despite their promises of lusty groupies, a ripped body, and the chance to become a Call of Duty commando-hero, none of them appeal to me. I instinctively sense the pointless ennui; the meat-grinder system the recruiters endured, all so they could try and convince their younger selves (me, in this instance) to embark on a distorted version of the hero’s journey.
I receive a business card from the last one (Navy) and step back into the main hallway. Before I can leave, a voice stops me.
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 and we shake hands. “Looking to enlist?”
I study him closely, thrown by his attitude. He doesn’t care if I join or not—he’s genuinely interested in me. Me as a person.
“Thinking about it.”
“Don’t.” He gives me a rueful grin. “You’re not cut out for it.”
“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 stack of ribbons atop his chest. “I’ve lived some dog years, if you couldn’t already tell. Take it from me: this isn’t for you.”
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.
“Follow me.” He opens the door into a darkened recruiting office. The lights click on and he steps behind a three-panel folding screen. “Gimme a sec.” A short while later he steps out in a sweatshirt and jeans. With his low-faded hair, he could easily pass as a beefy college student or a young dad.
He offers his hand (again). I shake it.
“Chris Atriya,” he says, as if he hasn’t said it already.
“Jon Dough. Good to meet you.”
He walks 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 above his chest.
“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 repeats. “My boss lets me do what I want. He says I’ve got an ‘impressive record.’ ” He makes quote marks with his fingers. “I’m okay with it. Chest-thumping, war-cries…it gets real old, real fast. And that’s the stuff my coworkers peddle.”
“So if you were anyone else—”
“They’d work me to the bone.” 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 gonna—”
“Right.” He regards me again, and I see that his pupils are a strange shade of gray. Rich and deep, but mild enough to go unnoticed unless you look right at them. “What if I said 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 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 up until now—every thought you’ve had and dream you’ve pondered—it’s set you up for massive change.”
I’m taken by a shiver, but I cover it up with a nervous laugh. “You friends with Doctor Strange? Let me know where to find that monastery; it looks pretty dope. Look, Sergeant—”
“Chris. You’ve confused me with someone else. And sorry for the Doctor Strange remark, I didn’t mean to—”
He waves dismissively. “If we can’t take a joke, then we’re truly lost.” He leans forward in his chair. “I have an offer for you—a contract. If you want to sign it, feel free. If not, we’ll go our separate ways and leave it at that.”
He opens a drawer, pulls out a single sheet of paper, and lays it carefully on the desk. It’s marked by two words, written in large bold letters:
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 turn it back and forth, making sure there’s nothing written on the back or in the margins. “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. “Are you saying that I—”
“Doesn’t matter.” I lay the page down on the desk. 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 long-term, they’re setting themselves up for maximal discomfort.”
“That’s kind of dickish,” I argue, now convinced he’s a grade-A nutcase. “You’re withholding information using a philosophical sleight of—”
“I don’t get details either, Jon. 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 me. “Don’t worry—I’m stable.” Now he’s amused. “The question is: are you? You’ve graduated high school, started college, and now you’re ready to start questing after fulfillment. Think you’ll get it?”
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 talking to my surface persona, trained to engage with norms and traditions. He’s talking to something 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. Scrawls his name 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? Are you for real? I just signed a two-word contract.” The logical part of me—the one that worries about GPAs, scholarships, and getting enough hours at my part-time dog walking job—takes back over.
He pins me down with those steady gray eyes. “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. “I mean, come on—you think you’d be happy with the 9-5? Living for the weekend, an extended vacation once a year, desperately hoping that nothing derails 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. “Life 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. “You wanna grab lunch? I’m caught up on schoolwork, so—”
“Nah. Got me a date.” His ageless face throws me a smile. “She’d give me hell if I stood her up.”
“She sounds gnarly.” I walk through the door. He locks up behind me.
“You have no idea.” We stroll out the entrance, into the lot. “We share the same name, believe it or not. ‘Chris.’ But she spells it with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i.’ ”
Chrys. I try it out in my mind. “Funny—it’s easier to think of her as female, now that you told me that.”
“Yep.” We head for his car, which is parked next to mine. “When I was young, it would have been weird if a girl was named Chrys, ‘y’ or not. Funny how things change, huh?”
I feel obliged to agree. “Yeah. Funny.”
We get in our cars and drive off the lot. 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.