Graham returned to the Brain Room to talk some of the soldiers and to check on a few details regarding operations at the platform. He had done two tours out there, each for about sixteen months, and he remembered all-to-well the persistent feeling of isolation. At headquarters, a few soldiers passed through each week as they were being deployed to different substations. There were always a couple of fresh faces around. But once you got out to the Platform, you could be stuck interacting with the same guys day in and day out for weeks at a time.
The Platform had been built directly adjacent to the Southeast Farallon Island, one of the biggest in the chain of rugged, rocky islands located about twenty-seven miles west of San Francisco. A narrow footbridge connected the Platform to the island as an emergency escape route. When Graham had been stationed there, he frequently took long walks on the island. After he was finished in the Brain Room, he decided to step outside for a bit of fresh air.
Graham had read a lot about the history of the islands. While some of the smaller islands in the chain had disappeared with the rising ocean, the Southeast Farallon, along with its nearby neighbor, Maintop Island, remained. They had first been inhabited by Russian seal hunters who coveted the soft pelts of the seals that lived on the islands. Graham had seen a picture of a street in Moscow in which hundreds of men walked shoulder to shoulder all wearing identical hats made of seal fur from the faraway islands.
Then, after the seals had been wiped out, the United Stated took control and built a few residences and a lighthouse high atop the Southeast Farallon Island. A few years later, some entrepreneurial San Franciscans responded to a shortage of eggs in the City by boating over to the Farallons to collect millions of eggs from the hordes of seabirds nested along the craggy shorelines. Competition between the egg collectors grew intense. Graham read that there was even an “egg war” between rival companies, which left two men dead. After the island chain was given protective status by the government, scientific researchers set up shop. In their journals, the researchers explained that the islands were so covered in life that they could barely walk on its paths for fear of crushing eggs or new-born chicks and that the surround seas teemed with white sharks, elephant seals, and an astounding variety of fish.
All that was long gone.
Graham walked the silent paths to the ruins of the government housing and the lighthouse. He imagined the cacophony of millions of seabirds squawking and the scientists’ delight as they tagged birds and studied seal mating behaviors. The afternoon was perfectly calm. He could hear no waves breaking on the shoreline below. He felt like his senses had shut down. The thick fog obscured his vision, and the silence of the island, where once so much life had thrived, gripped him by the throat. He could not believe that the final chapter of the islands’ incredible history would be so empty, so quiet, so meaningless – just a few lonely soldiers walking aimlessly through the fog.
At five, Graham returned to his room to freshen up for dinner. Throughout his career, he had stayed in countless small, bare rooms such as the one he occupied that afternoon. The walls were empty and white, devoid of history or personal attachment. They simply divided space. The floor was hard, cold, and bare. The Army did not even provide a small mat by the bedside to prevent the occupants’ feet from getting cold first thing in the morning. A round window the size of a diner plate displayed the same grayness he had lived with for the past nineteen years of his life. A large, institutional wardrobe stood imposingly in a corner. A metal desk and chair rounded out the décor.
Graham had the urge to pin something up on the walls or scratch his initials into the desk, as a tiny reminder to his soul that he might have had something more – something that did not feel so much like a prison cell. Then, he reconsidered this comparison. The room was less like a cell and more like an oubliette, where jailers used to strip prisoners of all their clothing, lock them away in a tiny cage in the dungeon, and literally forget them until they had repented their misdeeds and committed themselves to a better life . . . or the prisoners died. He wondered what he had done to deserve a lifetime of penance and isolation.
The sterile twin bed, shoved up against the wall, reminded him of his first days as a soldier. He pictured himself sleeping there as a young man – curled up and all alone. He remembered that some nights the loneliness seemed to carve deep pits into his heart. All he could do was lie still and wait for the night to end. For the past decade or so, he had almost convinced himself that he had outgrown that feeling. They say one can get used to anything. His noble role was to sacrifice so that others might live. What did he expect? Real sacrifice was not easy. But now, standing in that small, dark room, he realized that he wanted more. The image of his body curled up in endless solitary confinement – young, middle-aged, and eventually old – burned deep in his gut. He lay down on the bed and stared at the gray ceiling.
Why was Peggy Lee being so kind to him? Charley thought he had a chance with her. Charley thought it was worth a try. Graham wondered for a second if Charley was just toying with him, pushing him into a situation that was bound to backfire. But no, Charley would not do that to him. So maybe there was a glimmer of hope. And she kept encouraging him.
But it was so hard. He had never felt so insecure. He was in completely unchartered territory. The intensity of his feelings scared the shit out of him, but this fear also made him feel alive – more alive than he had felt in years. Maybe, just maybe, there was a sunnier future for him. But it was all too much. Joy and fear. Euphoria and devastation. Was this what it felt like to fall in love? She was shaking his foundations. Like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Peggy Lee had changed the all rules.
Graham showed up to dinner a few minutes early. He went into the kitchen to check on the menu to make sure that everything was vegetarian. The soldier from lunch was preparing a large salad. He apologized for the gaff with the squid.
“That’s okay,” Graham responded. “I know you were just trying to do something special. And it would have been nice – very well appreciated, in fact – with most other guests. I didn’t know that our invitees were so opposed to eating meat. Don’t trouble yourself about it anymore. I hope you all back here enjoyed them.”
“Thank you, sir, we did. Might I add – um, well – have you ever seen such a horrified expression on a person’s face? It was like we were serving them fried grandmother or something.”
“I know, I know, she seemed a bit overly-shocked from my vantage point too. But we all have our convictions, and Ms. Swenson is clearly against eating meat.”
“No, sir, I wasn’t talking about her. I meant him, that big guy. When I came back into the room with the soup, he was still pale, and his eyes were fixed on the plate of calamari. It looked like he might blow chunks right there at the table.”
“I didn’t notice – I guess I was focused on Peggy Lee.”
“Well, let me just tell you, it was strange all right, real strange.”