Gulf War Syndrome

It is hot, and I am tired. I’m at the end of an office trailer that itself is like a space station module attached to another office trailer, which serves as the main hub for this collection of mobile homes. Dorothy’s place. My roommate is sleeping on the bed behind me, his gentle fluttering snore, even and low. Robert woke me up with his shit smell again. I heard him stir in the small hours with a start. Uh oh, he says. That’s never good. I hear him shuffle his walker unevenly over to the elevated bedpan. Even the heavy blanket I have to use to keep the air conditioner from freezing me (it aims more or less directly at my head, and the only way for cool air to circulate through to the end of the office trailer, where the computer I’m sitting at resides, is for it to blow through a huge hole that sits just slightly above my pillow) has failed to keep the rancid, sweet and biting odor of his fecal ordeal from choking me so I’m awake. I make no eye contact with Robert while he shits, this does not bear noting or even acknowledging. This is just another morning. Robert, now unburdened, will be as usual using his extra morning time masturbating in the bathroom. Masturbating is worth wandering down the hall for, but when you gotta shit you just pull up the shit bucket. Anyhow I sneak down from the place in which I live to plug into the internet. I sign into google chat. In a rare occurrence, what a treat I thought, dad was signed in. We’ve had our rough times but ever since I pretty much agreed to the terms of our relationship, which were that I ceded all battles to him on every subject, things had been pleasant. We often discussed the fun times we had as a kid and I didn’t correct him about the awful times we had in between and sometimes, just sometimes, my dad is as right as rain. He’s as right as a person can be. He’ll just drop a fucking… infinite wisdom bomb. And he’s such a good study of character, or student of the character of man I suppose, that it can be fun to get his opinions on stuff.

The first Gulf War (Desert Shield and Desert Storm) had been quite a schism for us. While he quite enjoyed watching bunker busters rain into chimney shafts and talking a pretty good game about freedom and the responsibility of the able to defend the unable from injustice. I just saw a pretty clear line between defense spending and government waste, and (still believe that) white intervention in the middle east has directly or indirectly caused every major conflict in the eastern european bloc, indoasian zone, and is directly responsible for every terrorist attack on US, Western European, Eastern Asian soil that relates to radical islam. You can’t keep going back into the middle east, training the kids to be soldiers for you and then abandoning them to fight wars — wars you don’t understand that have existed longer than humans have been shitting in clay pots — and expecting anything other than adolescent religious chaos to issue forth once the smoke clears. After a while the survivors only remember white faces giving them guns and encouragement.

So when the events of September 11th, 2001 unfolded, I knew it would be a tough thing for us to discuss. I knew further that he would HAVE to discuss it with me, that being right over me about this would be important to him. I wasn’t sure why it was so important on this issue for me to not let him win. Probably because I was right, still feel like I’m right. Anyhow the time for analysis is over and we are clearly going to invade Afghanistan. The discussion is on. He has broken the discussion gambit with shock and awe-plomb, this is also quite typical.

“Some towel heads are gonna have a hard time sleeping tonight!”

He only uses racial epithets with me, and only to arouse my anger and shut down my ability to discuss things with him. He is usually quite pleased when one of these zingers shuts me down completely. Memorably, in those endless car-parenting sessions where your forced proximity means that it is a perfect time to apply parenting techniques that usually end in room-storming-out-of arguments, this is “tim time” when he does his endzone celebration. He spits an epithet, I get red faced mad and turn toward the window and he taunts me. Hey what’s the matter, can’t handle a little joke. I redden. When remembering this I clutch my hands so hard they hurt afterward. If he did it to me today I’d break his face. Just smash it in my hands.

“Once a couple sandy shithole villages get turned into flat glass disks they’ll learn that’s what you get for blowing up buildings that people work at, Jihadis.”

I remember that we both had our very severe doubts about the efficacy, necessity, and moral righteousness of the Vietnam war. In an outrageous appeal, I asked him to analyze the run up to the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts to the run up to Desert Storm, which was certainly not the discussion he wanted to have.

“What I didn’t understand at the time, and what you don’t understand right now is that your attitude about this conflict will lose us this war. And if you want us to lose us this war you’re on the side of religious zealots.”

His bad attitude about Vietnam singlehandedly lost that war, and my bad attitude was gonna lose us this one.

“Do you understand what I’m saying.” This is how he endzone dances. If I have no response other than yes I understand, it means, yes you have won. If I have an angry response, it means I don’t understand what he is saying, which means “I have lost”. If I engage him on it it will just mean a further escalation of the terms from here, dad negotiates UP with me. Only with me, and with no other men in the world. You say I’ve won? Well I say I’ve won AND I’ve beaten you. AND more to the point that you lost! You need to acknowledge each of those in turn now — I decided I had enough. I was done. This time, he had no hold over me. It was hot and I was tired and this was a shithole but it was mine and he could take credit for none of it. So I let him have it, I forget what it was even. But he signed off chat and that was the last time I talked to my family for a year. Maybe more. Just as I knew it would be. This has always been the price of disobedience; ex-communication. The definition of disobedience is the only thing that changes. Always negotiated up.


After we are back in communication, we haven’t been speaking for more than two or three weeks, when I try to mention Aaron McGruder’s then-contemporary commentary on the war in his excellent comic strip The Boondocks, my father retorts,

“Oh isn’t that the nigger who decided that sand niggers were his soul brothers and we should all just hold hands with them while they rape women and kill children.”

And stares, challengingly, back at me in the mirror.

He has me. I’ve taken a big favor from him and I’m living in his house again. I look away. My face reddens, and my hands clench. We have a long day to get through and I can’t let him get me mad this early.

Later my mother takes me aside, only me, and says, “I’m so proud of you both for letting that go.”

I can’t make eye contact with her either because I’ve long learned to translate her words too.

“I’m so glad you didn’t make him angry, he would have made the whole day uncomfortable.”

If I had only known. From that gulp of what bitter dregs remained of my pride, ten years passed, and in that decade I ceded every argument to him. I let it all go, I let him win, every time. When he demanded I yield completely I did so. I did it so I could stay in contact with my family. I did it so I could say we were a family.


A little over a year ago I visited my dad on an emergency room hospital bed. He was hooked up to wires and they were monitoring him. He’d been shitting blood all day. Well all night. Then still at work. So he went to the emergency room because he was you know bleeding from his rectum. He would say “I am eating myself to diabetes” at the table and we’d all agree. And then he’d say “Pass the steak plate I’m having seconds” and we’d all agree. “I’m just gonna have a snack before bed” and we’d agree.

He’s on the bed where he’s laying because his asshole has been leaking blood the essential syrup of life and he’s asking me which dim sum is good. Have I tried Ocean City. I hear HKCafe is good. Maybe some place will have good har gao. “I look just like my mom.” he’d say and we’d all agree, the broad waddle which had long eaten his neck and taken its home hung from his chin was unmistakably ‘her’. “Remember Dantes” it was a rib place that they haunted before I moved here and I don’t remember it well, no. But I remember he’d eat ribs and wake up shitting in the night. I know because I’d be up too, doubled over in pain. I can’t look him in the face. “The doctor says I have borderline diabetes” I cede it to him. I walk away.

He’s on the bed because of the blood in his shit and he’s got a house. It’s Grandma’s house and it’s in Arizona and they should have sold it or something, but for some reason he can’t let it go or refuses to deal with it. He’s shitting blood and there’s this house in Arizona he doesn’t get any rent on. He says he’ll fly down there and deal with it. I tell him that a call to a lawyer is free. He says he’ll fly down. Maybe this summer. I’m 21 again and I have no place to live and I’m back in Arizona and they still own the house there. The payment on the mortgage is less than an apartment. But they can’t sell to me. I’m not mature enough. This man, this stranger who lives in my grandmothers house he pays rent whenever my parents goad one another into asking for it. Five months, six, and they’ll get two months payment, a partial… and promises of more. I’ve seen the google maps view the pool is black with ichor, the yard overgrown with weeds. I’m 25 again and he’s trying to convince me to buy a house I can’t afford so that I can take care of his mother in the house next door to his. The terms have changed again and there’s already been an offer made and oh god no I cannot afford this and I cannot stop this, I’m fucked now, we’ve negotiated up way out of my price range. The only reason I manage to dodge this bullet is that Grandma dies. And now the house she died in is occupied by strangers who keep a murky lagoon where my grandfather swam his fat round laps. I cannot ask him about it because that is the bargain.

One day I tell him about it.

One day I tell him about everything. About the house and about his stomach and about everything. Everything I have ceded. It is cold and I am tired. I’m tired of them not talking and I’m tired of the threat that they won’t talk to me. I’m tired of the game and I’m tired of ceding ground. I am finally not in his house. I don’t owe him. And I tell him everything.

And that was over a year ago.

And that is it. The rest of my family has accepted my father’s bargain – that in order to have his love, you must not speak to me or about me. You must cede the topic of me. And they have, as each time, done so. Without fight or apology.