The first phone call was always going to be emotional. Not that we'd been locked away that long. Three weeks of pre-selection followed by roughly two months in basic training (the first being spent at the infamous "farm") was hardly a lifetime chronologically speaking, but man did it seem eternal for each of us 46 newly-crowned Legionnaires. The hierarchy finally caved, an evening at the regiment's foyer/bar being authorized. Beers and food items didn't interest us so much, however (although we didn't refuse them either!). Rather it was the tantalizing carrot in the form of the chance to phone home dangling invitingly before our twitching noses that caught our attention, like a rustling sweet wrapper to a spoilt puppy. International phone cards were bought by the truckload. We struggled desperately to remain in formation as we arrived before the doors of the foyer, the long line of pay-phones lying excruciatingly visible through the glass panes. The corporal ordered us to fall-out, and the manic surge ensued.
Queues quickly formed, but advanced at soul-destroying speed. The smiles and tears of the men before us enhanced both our anticipation and frustration. I rehearsed what I was going to say when someone picked up on the other end. The myths laid to rest, the anxiety appeased, the questions both parried and peppered, demanding every ounce of merited gossip from back home in my dear old Dublin town. When the connection was finally achieved, I felt such overwhelming relief. Relief at hearing my family on the other end. Relief at hearing their relief that I was safe and sound and thriving in this strange and harshly exotic environment. The health and well-being of friends and family quickly switched to the latest in politics, obituaries and Arsenal's progress in the league (actually, the last two probably could've been grouped together!). By the end, I was nothing short of euphoric. Most of the guys displayed similarly ecstatic demeanors by the end of their respective conversations. But not quite all of them.
We were crowded around the high round tables, beers scattered chaotically, all still lost in gushing conversation regarding our calls home when Sam arrived at the table. An affable Iranian, fluent English speaker and formidable Muay Thai instructor, his was one of the least expected resolves to crumble before our very eyes. But crumble it (and he) did. Now I've seen people cry before, sometimes from joy, mostly from distress or sorrow. But when the thumb and index finger of a single hand do that thing, that thing where they poke themselves so deeply into the eye sockets that one could believe they were trying to push the eyes themselves far enough back for the tears to dry before they even saw the light of day, THAT is a powerfully unsettling sight.
"My wife want's a divorce".
Silence, shuffling, uncomfortable looks towards our shiny leather boots or into the foam-filled abyss of the empty tankard, but nothing could enable us to fully connect with his pain. In hindsight, it seemed almost comical given the absurd setting and starkly contrasting atmosphere serving as backdrop. As shoulder pats and hair-rustlings were administered in the most non-patronizing way possible, the murmurs slowly climbed back to their previous levels as some dove in to the subject at hand.
"Sure what did he expect?" was the more popular shared opinion.
Most nodded in agreement. Some shifted awkwardly, their own thoughts floating back across oceans to semi-forgotten promises and even further faded faces. Having myself cut all romantic ties before joining, I have to admit that I ended up snuggled cosily in the "Told You So" camp. Sure what DID he expect? The military lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to a healthy, lasting relationship. Or so I thought.
Well, three years on and not much has changed in my belief system. If anything, it's been further reinforced by some ill-advised dalliances with French girls prone to calling me up in the middle of the night demanding promises of fidelity. They might have been considerably less suspicious and eventually reassured had they seen the hairy 90kg snoring Russian spooning my frost-covered sleeping bag. In any case, I decided enough was enough. Rationale, cynicism, fear, whatever the underlying cause poking provocative fingers up through my sub-conscious to push mischievously on all the right (or wrong) buttons, the old "Célibataire" stamp on the forehead has never burned brighter than during these present times. Being a legionnaire is a double-edged sword in the dating game. Initially inspiring a sense of wonder and excitement in the opposite (and same, actually) sex, it gradually gives way to an aggressively terminal boredom caused by all the weekends lost to regimental service, the weeks spent in the field, the months overseas and the coveted holidays invested unequivocally in trips back to home countries. That doesn't leave much time for a Gallic partner-in-crime then.
Conversely, I still fling all my balls up in the air (ahem!), attempting a precarious juggling act involving desires for it all and promises of nothing. It can only ever take me so far. A long-term monogamous relationship appears the holy grail when considered from a blood-and-dust filled hovel half way around the world. The dream soon becomes the nightmare however as random house parties, nights out clubbing or sessions along the sun-soaked canal provide both ample opportunities to meet new girls and simultaneously grudging weights dragging us away from any risk of promiscuity. It might seem more a universal crux on the male of the species than anything particular to Legionnaires, but then our free time is so limited, so precious that a primal need to partake in anything resembling copulatory activity over-rides all other system settings. Better that no-one else remains in the picture to get hurt, n'est-ce pas? Or perhaps it is we who fear being hurt, getting that clichéd call or text from the significant other breaking the news.
This isn't working out.
I can't do this anymore.
Is it not better to avoid all that water-treading, the unfulfilled promises, the cancelled weekends and curt, regrettably ended late-night phone calls? Better to be single, free, alone.
Better, perhaps. But for whom…….?