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The Question

Nina Semczuk

That moment in the spotlight eclipses the resolve.

The first time the question was lobbed at me, I was standing in front of a room full of strangers in Western Colorado. Two months had passed since I had signed out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, my Army career completed after four years and nine months of service.

“Did you kill anyone?”

The question landed, and my pale cheeks burned with twin stop signs of color on either side of my nose. The room hushed; only eyes moved. The assembled audience lined the walls of the art studio-cum-performance room. I stood in the northern portion of the space, farthest from the exit door. I looked down at the stapled packet of papers in my hand. I lifted myself from my stool and placed the papers on the seat.

I had just read aloud a work in progress—an essay about how military training accidents kill people in the strange world that is simulated warfare at the National Training Center. Artists-in-residence—me and two musicians for the month of August— were required to share their work with the community. The community was a town of less than 1,300 people, in an area known for peaches and old uranium mines, in a county that banned marijuana sales, yet had a large seasonal population of pot trimmers. The month-long writer’s residency was something I carved my way into after deciding I’d become a writer after my career as an intelligence officer. I wanted to spend my newfound free time writing about my former military life as a way to understand my experience—as a way to remember before it fades.

The reading was a chance to show myself as a creative being after almost five years of analytical, administrative, and logistics work. Spreadsheets, inventory lists, slide shows, and travel vouchers had dominated my last six months. Executive officer life.

The inquirer stared at me with large, wide-spaced eyes. Toad-like, I remarked to myself. I hadn’t crossed paths with this person before this evening; her question was our introduction to each other. In a quick scan I observed that she was what I thought of as a feral creature, the kind of drifter particular to Colorado, one who purports to live off dumpster scraps and disappears to Bureau of Land Management wilderness to bunk in vans, buses, tents, or squats. The type to reject their birth name (her chosen moniker was Oola, I later learned), and to hide the parental support funding their carefree wanderlust, and usual drug habit.

Disdain laced around my spine. My feet widened; my stance ratcheted straighter.

My memory replayed what she had said and confirmed that, yes, she indeed asked what I thought I heard.

“Do you really think that’s something you should ask someone you don’t know, in front of a group of people?” I heard the tempered incredulity in my voice.

She gazed at me now, mouth open. I stared back at her. In that moment I despised everything about her: the dirty hair, her hobo-bohemian torn shirt that exposed a flabby midriff, the visible nipples and uncased breasts, the bare feet, and the tanned, no-office-job skin. A goddess of freedom and ignorance, the two virtues in which America excels. Her life felt so foreign from my reality. I doubted she had ever worked for a living; did she even know what a W4 was? A couple weeks in Colorado and my outsider inquiry of “What do you do?” quickly taught me that in this part of the country, people claimed to be artists, writers, musicians, and “entrepreneurs,” all with hidden trust funds feeding self-styled ideas of careers.

The audience leaned forward now, alert and focused more closely, I supposed, than they had been during my reading. This was like live theatre, infinitely more entertaining than a writer’s reading.

I continued, “It might be traumatic, and you’re asking someone to tell you about it, in front of a crowd.” I drilled into those watery, blue-green eyes. Her face still looked dumbfounded. I wanted it to flame with embarrassment, to at least have some sort of recognition of the misstep cross her eyes.

“I just never met someone who looks my age and is a woman who was in the military.” Her voice was wondering.

“Well, that’s not the first question you ask them,” I said, my tone scolding and signaling finality.

I believe, or maybe I just hope, that I told her we could talk after, privately, and then I moved on to other questions and comments. I don’t recall if we did. That moment in the spotlight eclipses the resolve. After the crowd left, I stood in the kitchen with one of the residency volunteers, eating the plum cake I had baked earlier that day, burning with righteous indignation. The volunteer was the town’s gossip, and she poured a generous helping of gas on Oola, the person who had asked that question, describing her other foibles and misdeeds. My anger toward her and her ignorance felt justified.

Two months later, I was in Midtown Manhattan. I was working as an editorial intern at a job I had found on the internet when I searched “how to write a cover letter.” The company was a career advice startup, founded by women to help millennials navigate the workplace. I felt as if I had slipped in undercover. Young, white women from the Northeast comprised the majority of employees; on the surface, I blended in. For once, I wasn’t the sole woman among men. In other ways, however, I stood apart. When people talked about Broadway shows, ski condos, and the Hamptons, they assumed that that was my background, too. My parents weren’t doctors, lawyers, or in finance, like theirs. My ROTC scholarship paid for college; my colleagues’ parents paid for theirs.

Within a month of starting this civilian job, Veterans Day arrived, and I was featured in one of the company’s articles. The rest of my colleagues, not just my small editorial team, suddenly realized I had a life unlike theirs before joining the company.

A few days later, I was in the office kitchen, a slick, glossy open plan space when Adam, a photographer and producer, walked over to the sink. He dumped out his mug and turned toward me.

“I heard you were in the Army,” he said.

I nodded. “Yup, I got out this summer.”

On his way out of the kitchen, he leaned in my direction.

“So yeah, did you kill anyone?” He laughed and walked away, leaving me with my cup of coffee, mouth open.

My military guy friends are asked this question seriously, most often at a bar, after drinks—which seems an appropriate setting for an inappropriate question. Some avoid mentioning their service because they dread the question; others darkly relish the chance to shock or confront those who ask. One comrade shared that he pulls in the asker and looks him in the eye, saying “And what if I told you yes?” and then he walks away.

A part of me is jealous and irritated they get the hushed, secretive look; the alcohol as a tongue loosener. For me, if I’m truly honest, the question sounds dismissive when posed to me, especially in Adam’s case, because of course how could I kill someone? I’m a woman, the picture of blond and blue-eyed innocence. At least with Oola, she asked out of genuine curiosity. But even then, a small, disgusting part of me wished I could have said yes to her question—to shock her, to stun her, to shut her the fuck up—and, to confirm something I had wondered in the early days of ROTC: would military service push me across a line most of us don’t have to cross?

But the bigger question is why does it bother me? Why do I want someone to think that of me, or is it that I want people to know that if I had had to—kill someone—I was capable of the deed? When in reality I never had to confront, or even come close to that question? That thank God I was fortunate to not have to inflict bodily pain on another, or moral injury to myself, on behalf of my country, that is and was fighting an endless, mostly pointless, war?

As I write, I can see the transforming colors of the pole atop One World Trade shifting against the night sky. The young, silver building reminds me of one of the reasons why I served; seven years after the attacks, I signed my ROTC contract. As time moves me further away from my service, and I’m more often surrounded by older, wiser folks—or at least people with social graces—I no longer have to confront this question. And I’m grateful, so incredibly grateful, that my answer is no, when so many others would have to say yes. For that I am lucky. When I am asked the question, it invokes no memories, no trauma, no pain.

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Nina Semczuk's writing has appeared in Rougarou, Too Well Away, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. A recent speculative fiction short story of hers was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Before moving to New York, she served in the U.S. Army for five years. Nina lives in Brooklyn.

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