I had my nose stuck to the stem, legs spinning, lungs maxed out like it’s supposed to be on Lap 1 of the New Pier Ride.
I swung off and saw HIM. “Whaaaaa?” I thought, but before I could confirm that it was HIM another wanker had hit the front full gas and I pounded to keep my place in the line.
I rotated back, watching Sausage studiously avoid the front, watching Prez cagily twirl his legs while avoiding the front, watching the mass of riders who were there for the NPR workout but who weren’t necessarily there to work and certainly weren’t there to go to the front.
As I cruised in the rotation back up to the hot part of the kitchen I saw HIM again. Unmistakably, it was HIM.
“That you?” I said, knowing that it was.
He grinned back at me, skinny and barely able to fill out the legs of his bib shorts. “Yeah,” he said.
“Welcome home, wanker.”
Then I hit it as hard as I could and tried to shell him.
Baby, please don’t go
One by one the other riders in the herd recognized him. They all did a double take when they saw how much weight he had lost.
Chiseled Girl rolled by. “Oh, my dog! It’s you! It’s really you!” She put an arm around him as we pedaled at 30 mph in the weaving, swirling bunch of crazies. “But where’s the other half of you?” she asked, marveling at his thinness.
He laughed. “It’s called the Afghanistan MRE Diet. Not as glamorous as South Beach, but way more effective.”
A steady stream of friends came by in between attacks and paid him the ultimate biker compliment. “Welcome home. Dude, you’re fuggin’ lean!”
We had all watched him ship out the year before with a terrible sense of dread. It was his second tour, and after following the progress of his first one, which had been in Iraq, most of us were terrified. To make matters worse, he left us about as eagerly as a dog going into the vet’s examining room.
There are so many good reasons to hate war, and you can add this one to the list: Seeing a good friend vanish off to a faraway place and wondering if he or she will encounter any of the randomly bad things that can happen to unwelcome soldiers. That doesn’t just include the obvious hazards such as getting shot, stepping on a mine, getting blown up by a bomb, having your aircraft shot down while you’re in it, getting kidnaped, getting beaten up, getting tortured, or winding up as “Missing in Action,” it includes the noncombat bad endings as well like accidentally shooting yourself, suicide, tropical diseases, getting hit by a bus, falling off the bar stool and cracking open your head, slipping in the shower, food poisoning, depression, PTSD, root canals, getting operated on by a quack, falling into a giant piece of machinery and getting ground up into little bits, getting lost and dying from thirst, plagues of locusts, smallpox, and, yes, ending up in the belly of a whale.
So when I saw him there on his bike, skinny as a rail, all of his pre-tour insulation smelted off his bones, pounding like every other idiot on the ride, a wave of relief washed over me.
He’d made it, and to make matters better in a few months he would be retired. No more deployments, no more whale bellies.
The more things don’t change, the more they stay the same
We chatted for a few more seconds. “When did you get back?”
“Yeah, around six.”
“It doesn’t look like you’ve lost much in the firepower department, man. You’re going great.”
“Just happy to be home.” He looked at me briefly and that phrase “happy to be home” came from somewhere deep down. It was followed by a smile of happiness and relief that, as I think about it, I may have never seen before on another human being.
“We’re glad to have you home,” I said.
He glanced at the peloton. “Nothing seems to have changed.”
“Right. Same bunch of idiots trying to kill each other before work.”
“Feels awesome,” he said, right before attacking hard and riding off the front for good.
“Damn,” I thought. “Wonder where I can get me some of those Meals-Ready-to-Eat?”