It is early spring and Alan is picking me up to start our new weight lifting routine. He’s a former Navy SEAL working in my group now, adjusting to normal life. Everyone thinks it’s cool that Alan was in the SEALs. He’s good looking and well spoken and very polite. And he’s big, so he puts the car seat all the way back to fit his legs under the wheel.
Alan talks about his time in the SEALs but I never probe for more because he knows I’m a writer and I feel like a thief casing someone’s mansion when he starts telling a story. One of the first things I learn is that he’s always cold, which seems strange for such a big guy. After the workout he runs the shower for a few minutes so it’s steaming hot before he gets in. They had to swim from the border of southern California to Mexico and back, that was one of the tests, along with others where you had to hold your breath underwater for a very long time or run long distances in sand carrying a lot of weight.
Alan is type A. He was set to marry but his fiancee backed out last minute and so he packed up his things and moved across the country, decided he’d get a job where I work. He just rode the elevator up, asked for the HR guy, told him he wanted to work there, and interviewed. That’s when we met: I let him in to meet my boss. He glowed with a kind of confidence like he’d thought everything through and knew how it was going to end. We were all just actors in a set he’d choreographed. But all that calm covered up some heavy stuff he couldn’t keep in.
When we lift, Alan does the same amount I do even though he could do a lot more. He says he doesn’t want to get too big, something like that. Whenever we walk the halls at work I get more attention from women because I’m with him. But he never lets on about any of it or seems like he’s looking for a mate, and he doesn’t talk about what happened back east or why his relationship ended. As a result, it seems like everyone at the company wants to sleep with him but none of that goes to his head.
It’s not long before Alan and I buddy up with two secretaries Mindy and Lynn. Mindy is the blonde, Lynn looks like Meryl Streep. It seems I’m paired with Lynn and Alan with Mindy, though Mindy and I had a thing going well before Alan showed up.
Lynn is house sitting for a wealthy couple who owns a place on the water with a deck and a view and it’s early fall one Saturday afternoon when we start drinking wine before the sun sets and Alan spills his guts. No one remembers what he said exactly because it comes as a shock when he lets on to the fact that he’s having to live with the weight of what he did as a SEAL. He’s so nice and well spoken none of us thought of him as a well-trained killer. None of us at work ever had to kill anybody and this separates him from everyone else. He has to carry around something no one ever sees and can’t even talk about it. And that must feel pretty lonely.
Mindy gives me a ride home that night and then I think she goes off with Alan to his place or hers. They wind up getting married several years later and I’m part of a small group invited to a ceremony on the beach. Alan’s dad is a former diplomat and gives a toast, but emphasizes Alan was the second child with a tone implying that Alan will never achieve real greatness as a result. And you can see Alan’s face change a bit, it’s the same face I’ve seen on him where there’s a flicker of pain behind his eyes, a tremble, but then it restores to the even keel he always assumes. That is the key to understanding Alan, that small moment.
Alan gets recalled after 9/11 and his discharge date is Christmas Day. They couldn’t wait until the day after I guess, that’s one of the things that separates soldiers from civilians, the idea of holidays, or days off. He goes back to the Middle East but spends his time in control rooms doing remote warfare, aiming drones. It must be soul crushing, he does two tours like that. They want him to come back to the secret service to protect a former president but he declines.
I never wrote down the stories Alan shared because it felt like a form of betrayal. Everything is from memory: the time he spent in Haiti keeping people in who were trying to get out. The kind of close-quarter combat taking control of enemy boats with sawed-off shotguns and explosives. He was the guy who set the explosives to blow down doors while his teammates fired rounds through the doorway over him; he described what the heat felt like on his back as he went face down on the deck and they piled in. He lost friends in scenes you picture in movies, jumping across rooftops in some crowded village in north Africa. Or goofing around on the beach drinking wine around a camp fire reenacting a scene when someone accidentally gets killed. All that he had to keep inside and reflect on from a distance. Having to get his eye sewn together in the jungle when a branch snapped back and split it open.
We think we know people but we don’t. It’s hard to even know ourselves, and when you come down to it it’s the stories we recall that make us who we are by what we did. And having to divorce ourselves from the truth of what that makes us.