There are days I still fantasize about combat, long nights when I wish I had rejoined the Marines as an infantry officer after September 11 and gone back over and got some war to score that kill I'd missed the first time. Most people don't understand that desire, but I was born a war baby: my father impregnated my mother while in Honolulu on R & R from Vietnam. And I believed that there existed no grander test for a man than combat. Every other pursuit was pure, unimportant leisure when compared to a firefight. I didn't know if another war would make me a better man, but it might. It certainly would have changed me. Or it might have killed me.
What did I do instead of heading back to war? My first book, Jarhead, was turned into a movie, and I wrote and published a novel. I divorced one woman, and I spent many years falling in love with various versions of the wrong woman and walking away from the right woman once. I bought two engagement rings. I bought a beautiful apartment on West Nineteenth Street in Manhattan. I taught at a few different colleges. I ate at some of the best restaurants in the world (in Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Istanbul) and at some of the worst (in Ho Chi Minh City and Australia's Pilbara region). I spent an unconscionable amount of money on Burgundy wine and I drank most of it. I bought and used the occasional batch of recreational drugs. I nearly killed myself in a sixty-thousand-dollar sports car. I watched my father get sicker and sicker from a heinous disease that was possibly partially the result of his twenty-three years in the military and his exposure to Agent Orange. I thought about killing myself for months on end. A few times I fantasized about killing my father.
I flew women to London and Tokyo and Oakland and Seattle and other cities I've forgotten.
Once I slept in a hotel room in Shinjuku, Tokyo, with my girlfriend Ava. Staying in a room ten floors below us was a woman named Anya whom I had flown to Tokyo from Munich. A few Metro stops away in Roppongi was a Japanese girl I'd just spent a week with before my girlfriend Ava and my ex-girlfriend Anya arrived, a few hours apart. Somehow, I had sex with all of these women throughout the week and I did not get caught. This is to say, I took risks. And the meaning of the word girlfriend had a lot of elasticity. I thought I'd created a new language of lust, but really I spoke artifice and despair.
I told so many lies about my whereabouts late at night or early in the morning I'm certain I set a record for the audacity of my libido.
I believe that having been a marine and having gone to war helped me become a great liar. Growing up with a Vietnam War veteran for a father helped me become a liar, too. I learned this from my father: If the lie will not get you blown up, the lie is worth whatever the cost. My father excelled at deceit. He deceived his wife and children about what kind of husband and father he was, but mostly he deceived himself about how that little war in Southeast Asia had changed him.
Like many combat veterans I know, my father and I lived with the wickedly exciting and doggedly exhausting knowledge that we had once, for a short period of time, flirted with death, and won. This knowledge is like a drug, the purest cocaine or eighty-year-old Highland single malt scotch: once you have had some it alters your understanding of the world and of other people and of consequences.
If I lied to a lover about what neighborhood or city or country I'd slept in the night before, it didn't really matter: the relationship might sour but she would never kill me. Lying about sex became fun. It became a hobby. Manhattan bored me, drinking bored me, drugs bored me, but lying about sex never bored me.
Eventually I had wasted such a massive amount of money on women, wine, drugs, cars, and booze that my dissipation and deceit blew up in my face. I looked up one day and could no longer afford the mortgage on my apartment. I had to sell and became, in a way, homeless.
I would have liked to ask my father for advice but at the time our relationship was in complete disrepair.
But for some time my father had owned a Winnebago and a dream: that we two traverse the country and come to an understanding and discover a friendship. One trip wasn't enough. Neither was two. It took three.
Excerpted from Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails by Anthony Swofford. Copyright 2012 by Anthony Swofford. Excerpted by permission of Twelve.