It Was the Peace
My name is Eli Anderson and I, like thousands of other veterans, was killed by drunken stupidity. In my case, it wasn’t actually my alcohol use that killed me—I stopped drinking before I left the Army—but in the end it doesn’t matter. Dead is dead and now I’m dead. This wasn’t supposed to happen, I wasn’t supposed to die like this. I survived the war only to die the pavement of an American street. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it, I survived war but I died in the supposed safety of my own country. But I’m not the only one—it happens to a lot of us—through suicide, accidents, crime, and the failure of our bodies after years of service our numbers are reduced every day. We survived war only to die at home. We were the infantry, the sons of Odin, the winged gods of war fighting for freedom and the American way of life. Now we’re dying in the streets of America. We survived war; it was the peace that killed us.
A Life Before My Eyes
It surprised me how quickly the pain faded. As the attackers pummeled my body, it became numb and I stopped caring about the injuries I sustained. I heard the sound of the bottle shattering against the back of my head more than I felt it. I tasted the blood I coughed up and smelled the odor of the street. Then there was silence, followed by the sound of a siren in the distance. When the EMTs arrived started to feel again. I felt the body beneath me, the man I tried to protect. He was still breathing, I could hear him sobbing. Time started moving quickly, then slowly, then quickly again. A moment seemed to last an eternity then time flashed forward, then it stood still. It kept happening, I felt the breathing of the body below me and suddenly I was in an ambulance. I’ve heard that your life flashes before your eyes when you die but all I saw was a series of scattered memories.
I saw myself playing football in high school. I saw the towns of Sweden where I lived for two years as a Mormon missionary. I saw the sights, heard the sounds, and smelled the smells of my war in Iraq. Iraq changed my life in a million different ways but as I died it flashed by in a moment. Then I heard her voice. I heard her screaming and I remembered who she was. She was Soroya, my Soroya. When I heard her voice my memories focused and began to follow a logical pattern, a sequence of events that gave me the greatest happiness of my life and led me to my death. The life I remembered in my moment of death was my life after the moment I met Soroya.
As a veteran at college I felt lonely and socially isolated. They called me a “non-traditional student,” because of my age, but to me it just seemed like an excuse to exclude me from the traditional parts of student life. The other students knew I was a veteran and was older so they didn’t invite me to their parties. I was an outcast; a pariah for living a life that was incongruent with what they thought was the “normal” path through the college years. It was probably worse for me since I was a graduate student. Most of my classmates were in their mid-twenties had never really been in the real world, had never been out of school. They spent their time before grad school earning their degrees whereas I spent twelve years crisscrossing the world in the Army, while taking occasional classes to earn my degree. I simply didn’t fit in with the traditional students.
Another problem was that I was a mess emotionally. I was angry. Angry with myself for what I’d done, angry at my country for sending me to war, and angry at the world for the idiocy of war. I was scared. Scared of cars backfiring, scared of crowds, and scared of myself and who’d I become. I knew it was the PTSD that kept me angry and scared but knowing the cause of my feelings didn’t make me feel better. Something was missing in my life, in me, that I needed to find in order to be whole again.
My life started to change when I met Soroya. She was a first generation American with parents from Pakistan. I was an outcast for being older, male, and a veteran and she was an outcast for being the only Asian, Muslim in a small graduate program at a Catholic university. It wasn’t that she was culturally that different from her peers. In terms of tastes and interests Soroya seemed very American—she ate Pringles and Burger King and watched The Jersey Shore—none of her hobbies or the things she liked or did had anything with being Pakistani. But despite her American identity, she felt rejected by our peers in graduate school. Soroya was obviously beautiful but the first things I noticed were her eyes. They were almond shaped, dark, and piercing. It’s strange that I noticed her eye first because the headscarf she always wore was the thing that stuck out to most people. But there was something about her eyes that grabbed me.
The first time I tried to talk to her was a definite failure. I marched over to her with my military swagger and said, “Hey I’m Eli. You wouldn’t want to go get some food or something some time would you?”
“Nope, I wouldn’t,” was her reply as she quickly walked away.
I just stood there with my mouth open. I didn’t know how to react to such swift rejection.
The next time that she saw me I could tell that she felt guilty because she deliberately avoided my gaze so I used a cheesy pick up line to get her attention, saying, “You have beautiful eyes, I wish you’d point them my way a little bit more.”
She wasn’t impressed, although she cracked a smile before she said, “Just keep wishing,” and walked away again.
Surviving my time in the Army gave me the confidence to approach her and ask her out. But it didn’t really prepare me for rejection. Rejection was new to me and it led to a little bit of soul searching.
I asked myself what I was honestly thinking. First, I really didn’t like Muslims, or at least I didn’t think I liked Muslims. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t a bigot but I had some bad experiences with certain Muslims. I figured, most of the people in Iraq were Muslims and I didn’t like them, so maybe I shouldn’t like Soroya. I guess it wasn’t the most logical way to think but in my mind it made sense. The only Muslims I knew had AK-47s and tried to shoot me. Deep inside I think I suspected Soroya was the same.
The Color of Her Head Scarf
Despite my reservations I was persistent and did my best to get to know her. I started by trading seats with another student so that I could sit by her. She wasn’t impressed. Then I complimented her on the various colors of headscarves she wore. That too went poorly.
Monday I said, “Wow, that shade of purple looks great on you.”
“It’s like a mood ring. Purple means that I’m annoyed,” was her reply.
Tuesday I observed, “Nice scarf, turquoise, that’s a cool color. What does that mean?”
“It means I’m annoyed with you,” she replied with a sly grin.
Wednesday I didn’t see Soroya so I had time to plan what I would say when I saw her next.
On Thursday she was wearing a gray headscarf so I said, “Let me guess, gray means that you’re annoyed with me,” when I saw her.
“Nope, it means I hate you.”
“Ooh, hate, “ I replied, “that’s a stronger emotion than annoyed. That means you like me.”
“Um, no. It really means nothing. Or more precisely it means that I hate you.”
“Well I know the truth,” I persisted.
“Humph,” she pouted and walked away.
On Friday Soroya snuck up behind me and said, “Purple again, you know what that means.”
“It means that this is the first time you’ve talked to me without me saying something first. We’re finally getting somewhere.”
“Nope, annoyed,” she said with a smile but from that day on we were friends.
Even though she quickly became my best friend, there was still a lot about Soroya I didn’t know. She told me that she was Pakistani and that her parents were very traditional. She told me that she was twenty-five and had never been on a date. What she didn’t tell me was where she lived, what her phone number was, or why she wouldn’t go on a date with me.
One day she was yelling into the phone in Urdu. She seemed angry so I asked her what was going on.
“My mom’s here to pick me up. She wasn’t supposed to be here until four.”
“Oh, so are you like going to lunch or shopping or something?”
“Nope, she’s just here to give me a ride.”
“Oh, that’s nice I guess. What’s the special occasion?”
“Nothing!” She snapped. “My mom or dad give me rides every day because they don’t trust me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I said, a little bit embarrassed “I didn’t know.”
“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know!” she yelled as she stormed away.
Friends and More
The thing that really brought us together was our apparent lack of integration with our peers. One day I saw Soroya crying on a bench outside of our classroom.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Apparently being popular is an important part of our academic progress,” she quipped.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“I got my student evaluation today and part of the feedback said, ‘Soroya is not integrated well with her peers.’ What does that even mean? Does it matter that I’m not popular in a group of skinny, white girls with daddy issues. Why should being popular with your peers was so important. It’s not like any of them ever come eat lunch with me. They never tried to be my friends but I bet it doesn’t say that they ‘weren’t nice to the only minority in their year’ on any of their evaluations. It’s a group. If I’m not well integrated than the entire group isn’t well integrated. They single me out by not including me so I get singled out on my evaluation.”
“Yeah. Mine said something similar but I just don’t care. I’m seven years older than them and lived a life they couldn’t imagine. But I agree that it’s pretty stupid that the faculty seem to be singling out the people who the group rejects instead of identifying problems in the group.”
“Welcome to my life. At least we’re integrated with each other,” said Soroya, forcing a smile, but the sadness in her eyes endured.
I put my hand on hers and looked into her beautiful eyes. I tried to use my expression to say that I was there for her, no matter what.
With that she leaned forward and gave me a hug. That moment in her arms I felt safe for the first time since before Iraq.
A Love Marriage
Our relationship didn’t exactly move quickly after that. Before that we had only talked at school but after a few days I got a personal message on Facebook with her phone number. Daily texting followed for the next few months before we started actually talking on the phone. Talking on the phone led me her on a date again, to which she said no. But that request led to the conversation I’d dreaded.
“Is there a reason why you won’t go out with me?” I asked.
“There is, but I don’t know if we should talk about it.”
“We can talk about anything. Unless you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s fine.” She paused for a moment before saying, “You know that there is something that Pakistani people do sometimes, I mean, a lot of the time?”
“Um, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about,” I said, even though I was pretty sure that I did.
“Okay, well it is the reason I can’t date you. You know that my parents want me to have an arranged marriage, right?” She asked.
“I thought so but. I was hoping it wasn’t true,” was the only response I could muster. “Is it something you have to do? Are they forcing you?”
“No, that’s not how it works. In Islam parents can’t force their daughter to marry, well they can but they’re not supposed to. But the way my family is, it’s either that or be rejected. So I’m going to have an arranged marriage. My older sister had a love marriage and my parents barely talk to her. And her marriage was with a Pakistani man. A love marriage to a white guy—even a handsome, smart, educated one—would never work,” she said. Every word seared my heart and my soul.
“So where does that leave me, leave us. You know I love you.” I said.
“I love you too but it’s just too much. I can’t lose my whole family. It’s too much.”
“Can we at least go on one date? Just one?” I begged.
That was the worst conversation of my life. In that moment I wished we never became friends. I wished I didn’t have her phone number. I was glad that I didn’t know her address because if I did I would have driven there and knocked on her door and begged her to reconsider. We remained friends but there was a distance between us. When the summer started our relationship had returned to a kind of comfortable homeostasis.
Then something interesting happened. I was still in the Army Reserves and was ordered to a three-week training in Germany, after which I visited my parents back in Utah. The distance brought us closer. We talked, texted, and posted messages on Facebook every day. We needed each other and our love grew. When I returned Soroya surprised me by inviting me to her home for a welcome back party.
Now, I use the word “party” loosely because the only people there were Soroya and I. Her mom was there too I guess but she wasn’t really a part of the festivities. She scurried around making sure that I had all the food and cake and soda that I could eat and drink. Although Soroya’s mother didn’t want us to date, her culture demanded hospitality and she struggled to be the perfect hostess and I was well taken care of.
After that we began to date in secret. At first it was a stolen kiss at school or leaving campus for lunch. But in time we began to do more and I would visit her at home when her parents weren’t around.
That’s not to say that there weren’t complications. Once I barely made it out before her dad got home and he glared at me as I drove by him a block away from their house. Another time I snuck out the back door just as he was coming in the front. It was both exciting and nerve-racking.
It all culminated with our secret marriage. There was no real ceremony, just signing some paperwork and saying a few words in the courthouse. Our wedding night was a stolen kiss before her parents came home. Our marriage was a love marriage. It was marriage lived in secret outside the eyes of Soroya’s family, or anyone else in the world.
We got married in November and we planned on telling them sometime in the next year. But for me another year never came.
An Unusual Sight
It was Friday and I went out to dinner with Soroya. It was our tradition, eating out on Fridays, and after we finished dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant, I dropped her off at her parents’ house.
When I was driving home I saw something weird. The Army teaches you to notice things that are out of the ordinary and that was definitely weird. There was a white SUV stopped diagonally, half on the street and half on the sidewalk. The headlights of the SUV fell on three men surrounding something on the ground. From my car I could hear them yelling.
I stopped my car, stepped out, and approached the group.
I heard them yelling profanities and racial slurs at the man on the ground.
“My brother fought a war against you Fuckin’ Hajis and you come here and stink up my bar.”
“No, I’m from here, I’m American. Please just leave me alone,” the man on the ground yelled.
“You may be from here but you’re not American,” one of the three said as he kicked the man on the ground.
That’s the last thing I clearly remember. I rushed in to break up the fight and was greeted by a punch to the face.
The idiocy of the situation was overwhelming. I was a veteran being attacked by a crew of rednecks, because I tried to protect a man they attacked because they thought he was Middle-Eastern. How’s that for a messed up situation.
It turns out that he wasn’t Middle-Eastern, although he was a Muslim with Pakistani parents. It turned out he was also Soroya’s cousin.
That’s how she ended up at the hospital, by my bedside as I lay dying.
Her dad got a phone call that his nephew was in the emergency room and the whole family rushed over.
Nobody knew that she was my wife. Nobody knew anything about me aside from the fact that I was a Good Samaritan and I was probably going to die.
Tat’s when I heard Soroya’s cries. I felt her tears falling on my face and through the haze I saw her beautiful eyes. I knew I could die in peace because I saw those beautiful eyes for last time.
“Eli!” she cried.
I tried to answer but I didn’t have the strength as my life faded away.
My name was Eli Anderson and I was a veteran. I was a soldier, I was a friend, I was a husband, and now, I am dead.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were the outcasts who found each other. We found love and our story was supposed to be an example to the world of the American ideal of acceptance and openness. We were supposed to have a daughter named Mackenzie and we were supposed to live happily ever after.
But fate had something different in store for us. At least I got to see her beautiful eyes one more time before I died.
I survived war. It was the peace that killed me.