Daniel folds his clothes carefully, putting them one by one in the backpack so they won’t crease on the trip back. It’s the mirror image of the ritual he did exactly one year ago, he reflects, when he had been preparing to leave home.
“One year from now, it will be over,” he had thought then, aware he didn’t know exactly what “it” would entail. His younger, more innocent self thought that at worst “it” would mean twelve months of drudgery and annoying nonsense, to be put behind and forgotten as soon as they were done.
But there is no way to know what will slide away and what will stick to your skin like a tattoo, becoming a part of you for the rest of your life.
The door opens and Lambert comes in. “You all set, Fernandez?”
“Not quite,” Daniel replies. Despite being among the half-dozen who slept under the same roof, he and Lambert were never close. But now there is something else in the room that causes both to breathe more carefully, to avoid breaking something invisible and fragile as a bubble. One that was always there but which in its ultimate moments takes on a myriad of colors, like the sun will throw his brightest fires right before setting.
Holding their breath while pretending not to, voices as neutral as their words, careful not to color anything with what they can’t afford to show.
You all set?
Yep, just a couple of things to take back to the armory and then I’m done.
Make sure you give a good sweep under your bed.
Done. Like it matters anyway.
And their brief laughter, casual like the rest. Both treading as carefully as they did on reconnaissance missions during those night exercises in the first weeks of training: another thing currently falling down the bottomless rabbit hole of memories, so deep it’s vertiginous to stand at the edge and watch it expand.
Lambert has finished packing up and is trifling with his backpack. He’s been doing and undoing the straps three times already, as if he needed something inside then decided he didn’t.
Guess I’m done now.
Your folks coming to get you?
No, I’m taking the train.
You’ve got 45 minutes to go then.
Good enough. They both know the station is just 15 minutes away.
Well, Lambert finally says then grabs his bag and walks to the door. They stand face to face, knowing they will never see each other again and suddenly the rest of their lives is flashing before them like a drowning in reverse.
In the few seconds that follow, more is said than in twelve months.
And then Lambert is gone and Daniel goes back to folding clothes.
Later: the bag is packed. At least it’s too full to accept another item. Now he’s standing before his locker, half empty and soon to be someone else’s. Looking at what he can’t take but can’t bear throwing out either.
“You’re gonna sleep here or what?” Ben asks.
“I wish,” he says and realizes he means it.
Ben is the only one who will stay behind. Tonight, when Daniel sleeps in a home and a bed that were once familiar, Ben will be in this bedroom. Daniel finds the thought comforting.
“Never thought you’d miss it, did you?” Ben says, knowing the answer. “Maybe you should stay too.”
“You know I can’t do that,” says Daniel.
“But I know how much you want to.”
“Will you stop torturing me?”
“You’re just torturing yourself.”
He knows Ben is right. By delaying his departure, he’s only making it harder.
“Everyone who was supposed to leave has left,” Ben now says with his usual knack for twisting the knife.
Daniel goes to the window and rests his head against the cool glass. He can see part of the yard where in the early days they were taught to march in line as one, so many of them trying not to blow a fuse or laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.
You learn to communicate beyond words when you’re not allowed to talk, not allowed to laugh, not allowed to move except in unison. When the most you share is all that is forbidden, complicity becomes the norm.
Sometimes as they silently stood at attention, a giggle would spread like wildfire from one to the next. Everyone trying to stifle it, panic fueling their laughter, for whoever broke down would drag the whole group with them and those in command would make sure no one stayed amused for long.
It was childish, as were the pillow fights and horsing around, but it did wonders for the morale of the troops.
For most French teenagers who didn’t fancy themselves warheads or fous de guerre, the year of mandatory army service called "service militaire" was a nightmare looming ahead as soon as they reached 18. Those who couldn’t dodge it went in expecting to go Full Metal Jacket. This in itself was enough for bonding. Stripped of individuality, from social status to haircut, the main thing they had in common was going through what they could not avoid. It was the greatest equalizer for those who would never have met in civilian life, now equal for the first and last time in their lives.
And for one last time, they were allowed the innocence of children who only need a playground to get along. In times of peace, the ritual of becoming a man culminated in the games of childhood finally played on a life-sized scale. The last war fought on this land was four decades into the past; a concept that to their young minds could only be processed through games, films or fiction. If there was to be another one, they knew it wouldn’t be fought with the obsolete weapons they were given. The whole thing was like a fragile dream, the kind you hold on to when you don’t want to wake up.
The draft itself was living out its last days. In a few years, it would be abolished. Then it would be official: there would be no point in what had brought them together in the first place.
Names come to him: Martin, Jean, Burgonde, Chavagnac… They had been closer than brothers, with no expectations on either side than to get through this together. They knew that whatever life had in store for them, such intensity could never be repeated.
It's been less than a day and they're already memories. The yard looks empty but to Daniel it isn’t. Something has to remain, invisible yet palpable – and if not here, in a dimension beyond their reach, but surviving for what they could grasp of eternity.
I was standing
You were there
Two words colliding
And they could never
tear us apart
The song had played almost daily during the first month of training. Now it’s just an echo, the sole reminder that something took place.
“Where does the time go?”
He hadn't meant to say it aloud, but it’s a question he will ask himself often in the coming years. What he really means is: what happens to all the things time takes with it? Now he understands that ghosts are not always the dead. Surely some part of what they shared lives on somewhere, vibrating like waves in space.
“Your New Age is showing.” Ben, always happy to piss on sentimentality. “Don’t fool yourself, Dan. A year ago to this day we were all strangers to each other, and that’s exactly what we’ll be a year from now. Oh yes, there’s been talk of meeting again, and maybe some will a few times. But you won’t be able to fool yourselves for long that we all move on. And that’s the best-case scenario.”
Daniel doesn’t need to ask about the worst-case. Ben is on a roll: “And maybe some day, years from now, you’ll come here again or just ‘happen to pass by’. And you will do your best to conjure up what used to be, and maybe fool yourself about what you’re feeling. And maybe you’ll ask permission to visit this room, provided it’s still there. Just don’t expect to find anything here but kids young enough to be your sons, who will wait politely until you give them back their space. Like that guy, remember?”
Of course he remembers. The middle-aged man looked like he had never been young. Yet there was something in his eyes and his wistful smile that hinted at all the emotions bubbling under the surface as he surveyed the room, seeing things only he could see. Daniel had wanted to say something to him, but wasn’t sure what. Maybe a question to which neither had the answer, that would have only left them faced with the insoluble riddle of time.
The locker is finally empty, save for one photograph taped on the inside. The photograph shows the same room, except they’re all in there – that is, all except Yvan who must have been the one operating the camera. This is more deduction than remembrance for Daniel. Poor, shy Yvan always so helpful yet so discreet he was always bound to fade in the background or disappear.
Ben, softly: “We should never have left him alone that night.”
“How could we have known?” Daniel, slightly defensive.
“Remember when the Sergeant would act all crazy and we’d just shrug it off, like: Sergeant's just being an army guy? Turned out he was just plain crazy after all.”
“Again: how could we have known?”
Daniel’s eyes turn back to the photo and its absent friend. Yvan, who had sought out his friendship in his own timid way but seemed to take for granted that Daniel would prefer the company of their most boisterous roommates. He wishes he could drown out Ben's voice who goes on, relentless: “I wanted to stay with him that night, remember? But you said it was better to let him sleep and go out with the guys.”
“Well, you know: male bonding and all that.”
“Dan, please. You just wanted to get drunk.”
“Isn’t that what male bonding is all about?”
Ben won’t leave it alone. “None of this would have happened if we had stayed.”
“And what about the others before Yvan?” Daniel shuts the locker, more forcefully than he meant to and the slamming resonates in the room. “Are we responsible for that too? We didn’t even know them.”
“Oh, I guess that makes it all right, then.”
“Staying here won’t bring them back,” Daniel says.
“But running off will make you forget it ever happened?”
A pause. Then Ben starts again : “We could have brought the whole place down if we had spoken up. I wanted to, remember? You wouldn’t.”
“Against them? None of us would be alive today. You know how they all stick together. You try so much as to question an order and you’re a traitor to the nation.”
They’ve had this argument countless times. In a minute it will become a speech about how Nazism started and Daniel doesn’t want that. Not on this day.
He knows there’s no point in pursuing this. Atonement is an island you never quite reach and you could drown crawling for it. Because no matter how calm the waters look, the undercurrent will never let you go.
Yet he keeps trying.
“Everyone knew the Sergeant always went nuts when a new contingent arrived,” he now says. “But no one would have thought –”
“You know,” says Ben, “I always suspected it wasn’t a new contingent arriving but the old one leaving. All these guys he had lived with for months and would never see again.” After a pause, he adds: “I’m starting to understand how he felt.”
“Is this why you want to stay here?" asks Daniel. "So you can go crazy in peace?”
“Beats doing it in the civilian world, you’ll have to admit. Less obtrusive at any rate”
Daniel laughs: “Don’t let the Colonel hear that.”
“Tell me again what the Colonel said. I need a laugh too.”
Daniel sighs, recalling his final visit to the Colonel earlier that day: “He said: Now you can tell anyone who didn't serve in the Army : At least, I am a man.”
“Good old Colonel. The funniest thing about him is that he has no sense of humor whatsoever.”
Not for the first time Daniel wonders if becoming a man is a gift or a curse society puts upon you. That question has been nagging at him for some months. And the closer he gets to the answer, the less he wants to know.
“We were just kids,” he murmurs.
“We still are,” Ben answers. “Only now we’re supposed to pretend we’re not.”
“It’s gonna be a long life,” Daniel sighs, “playing at being an adult.”
“Why do you think I'm staying here?” says Ben, not even asking.
In the last months, Daniel had pondered enlisting. It didn’t look so bad after all. Serve fifteen years and get a lifetime pension. The temptation was strong for signing up – so strong in fact that it was a deciding factor against it. He suspected the impulse was more rooted in fear than anything else.
No wonder Ben wants to stay. And this despite all that happened. Right now it seems a small price to pay compared to the great unknown outside.
Soon we will be ghosts in our own lifetime, he thinks. And there will be no one to remember we were there.
Like Yvan, whose body was never found.
“Time for you to go, Dan.” Ben now says softly.
Daniel looks around the room one last time.
“Well, good-bye then.”
It’s a different good-bye than the one he exchanged with Lambert. Without waiting any further, he picks up his bag and walks out.
The gates and the outside world are getting closer. He doesn’t turn back as he crosses the yard. In his mind he sees himself through the eyes of someone else. He pictures Ben watching him walk away, like the final scene in a movie, the one with a song playing over the end credits.
I was standing
You were there
Two words colliding
And they could never
tear us apart.
When he finally turns back for one last look, the yard is empty.
The trees have been replaced by a forest of buildings, tall and gray. The train is approaching its destination. Daniel sees the city looming ahead, and the years stretching out before him.
He holds on to his military card, soon to be the artifact of a previous life. The picture that stares back at him, taken one year ago, could be someone else’s. It is certainly not who he is now, yet this piece of paper is supposed to represent the sum of his parts. Last name: Fernandez. First names: Daniel, Benjamin. And the red stamp that is the sesame to the new world: “Discharged of military obligations.”
His mind goes back to the Colonel’s parting shot, the blessing doubling as a curse. Now he speaks the words out loud, trying them on for size: “I am a man now.”
But even as he says it, he’s aware he has never felt less complete.