My biological brother is having a tattoo removed from his wrist so that he might be compliant with military uniform standards. I think about his skin searing, popping. When I was his age, and had yet to find my biological family, out of anger at my adoptive parents’ divorce and desperation to leave my Midwest town, I had burned myself, too. Heated metal tips of Bic lighters marked my shoulders and biceps with glistening ovals. I disfigured my forearms with blistered smiling faces. No one noticed. Eventually, I joined the Marines to get out. For years, I blamed everyone but myself—I might not have joined if someone had asked me why, or how I was feeling, or what had happened to my arms. Questions always seem to come too late.
In the Marines, we branded one another to prove our loyalty—our love. A penance for who we’d volunteered to become. Later, I decided it was to feel a modicum of the pain we’d caused others. I remember the moment: massive, burled, dark brown hands with palms like elephant hide. The solid dog shit smell of wet lumber used to build our patrol base barracks southwest of Fallujah. Piano key teeth bared and wet behind the heat mirage from a blowtorch. The tug and pop of splitting rib skin before the white-hot brand ever touched me. A release of fear and fury and impotence and guilt and shame. A whispering voice over the cheers, Breathe. Just breathe. In my memory, the voice turns into my wife’s and her fingers track the scars on my body and she asks me what I wanted to hear so long ago.
Sometimes I don’t want my wife to touch me. If I am doing dishes at the sink and she wraps her arms around my midsection and rests her tired face on my shoulder, my blood pressure spikes. I grow anxious and sweaty at the thought of her behind me as we ascend the stairs to bed. I pass it off like it’s funny, racing her, tumbling onto our mattress, forcing a laugh. I hope that I am good at hiding my discomfort. I know from the Marines that if I do something enough it becomes muscle memory—ingrained in the synapses of my brain so that my muscles will respond automatically. It isn’t a lesson I want my brother to have to learn.
A part of me believes this is the true moment of reckoning for my participation in an unjustified war—for the pain I’ve caused. I think of my twenty-year-old brother whom I’ve only known for three years and the fading tattoo on his wrist and the burn scars on my own. I feel responsible. I will do better this time. Why? I ask him. And I am disappointed when he sets his jaw and answers: It’s something I feel like I have to do. What else can I say? I don’t want to push him away. I just found him. So instead I wonder about his future significant other and what I will say to that person to explain why I didn’t protect him. I’m sorry, I will say. I’m so sorry. And then I imagine my brother at his own kitchen sink a decade from now, home from a forever war, sweat breaking on his brow, skin prickling as his partner wraps their arms around him, rubbing the faded scar on his wrist, whispering in his ear, How did this happen? How did this happen? But how did this happen?