On my flight home from Chicago, I was seated next to a young woman in army fatigues. About 18, Maya sported the very familiar dialect of Yakima, WA (Fucking Amy's hometown). That was my first thought. My second thought was "Who enlists in the army during a war?" I devoted considerable time to thinking of a polite way to ask just that. I never succeeded.
Maya was a bitty thing. Her hair cropped short and her tiny frame swimming in her camouflaged uniform and army boots, she looked like somebody's daughter playing dress-up in Daddy's work clothes. You wouldn't really guess her gender until you saw her eyes. Giant, expressive, Disney character blue eyes.
She brought nothing to read or eat on our cross-continental flight, choosing instead to stare at the seat ahead of her and peruse its barf bag. When I declined the airline's offer of cheese and crackers, Maya asked if she could have mine. She packed it away for later. Finally realizing, I offered her my newspaper and football magazine, which, along with my trail mix and bottled water, she guiltily consumed. Hers was the sheepish acceptance of the very poor. She was visibly humiliated by having to accept the smallest kindnesses. The smaller, the more shameful.
She was going home, on leave for the holidays. Maya had just completed Basic Training and begins Advanced Infantry Training in two weeks. As she told me about AIT, she locked her eyes on mine in an excruciatingly sad, "You do understand what that means for me, right?" moment.
Yeah. I know what it means.
I tried to change the subject to happier things, like going home for Christmas. But there, too, was only more sadness. The thought of going home brought her no comfort. And it was then that my question started to answer itself. Who joins the army during wartime? Someone who's completely out of options at 18. Someone whose life is so awful, so bereft of hope, that war is a comforting step up.
Maya didn't have many paths from which to choose, and they were all horrible. She didn't turn to drugs, public assistance or crime; she turned to the only remotely positive option she had. The rest of us are blessed with nepotism or beauty or luck or wealth or intellect. But Maya? The only thing of value she has to offer the world is her mortality. The world accepted.
Knowing she had zero money and eight hours before her connecting flight, I gave her some cash with which to buy food and entertainment. I am certain that she spent none on the latter. That forty bucks probably represents twenty meager meals to her. She sheepishly accepted, eyes again welling. That's what I'll remember most about Maya. Her eyes welled every time she looked up.
A little teary myself and feeling utterly helpless, I shuffled out of the airport. I imagined seeing Maya's photo on the local news sometime in April, her gigantic, defeated blue eyes staring back at me. I wondered if anyone else would even care.
Most of all, I wondered whose daughter this is. I'd like to speak to them.