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My Summer of Miranda Lambert

“Stop thinking in that f-’d up way, just stop it now,” I order myself. It’s no use, though. My cheeks are still burning, even though it’s cold and clean and sanitized where I’m standing. I’m in line now at a Starbucks that could be any Starbucks, having parked at a careless angle in its parking lot, knowing now I should look out for cops from the window.

But by now, despite a lifetime of fearing cops and their weapons, I’ve grown desensitized to seeing them, and, like the cop-like, mostly white, unsmiling men I look at all day, every day, their solid, hovering bodies fill me with a calm respect, a weird subservience I’ve never experienced before in all my life.

And this incredibly f-’d up thing I’m thinking: Could I ever become one of them?

Smokin’ and drinkin’ got cha thinkin’ about the one that got away, sings Little Big Town, filling my car. “Fillin’, the way Miranda said.

Working as a doctor with the military men who run the clinic (men, for the most part, so few women), I’ve come to understand “the culture” really matters to them. It’s like the ring of a secret and formidable club that informs the way they walk, the jokes they make (all deadpan, graveside, sarcastic acceptance of the constant risk of death). The ring of military membership, for them, is both looser and tighter than most wedding rings. It even informs the way they touch, their trailing gazes on their female colleagues when they run, the affairs they make oblique jokes about having, do have, when overseas, for months away from their spouses.                                    

What they call “culture” is a ring they wear turned inside out so that you know it’s there: you see metal against their skin, but you can’t see the leering face of it, the cold triumph.

And what am I to them, these “guys”? A “curiosity,” my smartest women-of-color doctor friends would repeat. “Curious.”

“OK, fine, I am a little curious. They’re not uninteresting,” I will admit. And so, I understand my burning cheeks right now, my tears—they’re tears of suddenly not being as righteously contented, or grateful, as I once had been in my life. Of being offered a weird portal, such an unexpected way of being American. As if, if I were to accept being part of a new minority, be one with this stoic, determined culture, make it my first and only loyalty—I would belong. I’d be accepted—I’ve seen it. The numbers of good-looking, American-sounding people of color in uniform, so many. The startling cool factor they possess. The awareness of being accepted, admired.

It would be as if I’d grown up cute and cheerful, untroubled by moral weight. Cheerleader, my brown skin so smooth and covering harmless and Barbie-like limbs. The darker version of a fruit they know and already believe they possess. Like there had been a sixteen-year-old me wearing old cutoffs, riding in pickup trucks, laughing carelessly. Like there’d been an American reality, without racist and vaguely threatening mutterings. And like the Miranda Lambert soundtrack playing in my car, we would be smokin’ and drinkin’ / on the weekend / like we did back in the day—even though, as a devout Hindu, I wouldn’t and never did. Don’t smoke, don’t drink. But those nuggets, they wouldn’t need me to. I’d be a commissioned officer. Status from medical training. Be “in,” in such a way that all the years I served would be “years in.” Form bonds that aren’t dissimilar to how close police, firefighters, nurses, EMTs are to each other. What doctors block out, lose, typically never have—except in military settings, maybe. Abiding, reassuring, often noncompetitive closeness.

Now on a break from this clinic where I’ve been moonlighting a few days a week while I do research on trauma at a university, I get a composition notebook from my car, the music all gone when the door closes, and go back into the Starbucks to find an empty, holiday-garish table. Drink mochachino, eat shortbread. Just breathe. Remember who I am.

I don’t eat sweets when I’m near the clinic. It seems insensitive. A high proportion of the most-stressed patients are overweight and in danger of losing livelihoods, in danger of not even qualifying for their uniformed, active-duty mysterious service, if they don’t shape up. No exemptions given for being postpartum, having a genetic syndrome, or just being fat. There is a brutal ice in this, a way in which youth and perfection are frozen, if you’re “in.” The price of being “in.”

I throw the cookies away after one bite. Trade the sweet drink for a water. That idea—of being “in.” It calls to every unforgiving impulse in my soul, every desire I have, to be perfect, too.

The first rule, when you “join up,” as they say—“go military”—is that you never tell. Don’t. Tell. Mysterious tales to civilians. First start by acting as if the whole experience took place in an airport. Planes landing in a field. People drawing close because they’re waiting somewhere together. Out of boredom.

The military men, in the months they aren’t deployed, are as steeped in gossip as the wives they seek to defend. They circulate and build upon rumors, making sure true stories go untold: of how dozens of South Asian–American recruits—like me, my age, the service member like I almost was seduced into becoming—were used to interrogate and torture South Asian and Middle Eastern prisoners in detention at secret places that now aren’t so secret, that have become lightning-rod names for debates about “water boarding” and “civil liberties.” Turning brown recruits into torturers, I came to understand, had been one tool US forces had used in infiltrating the prisoners. A kind of sting. Stinging reality. A specific face, a name, a victim of this, that I can’t speak of here, because I myself am not fully safe, are what I force myself to remember, vividly, whenever I feel drawn to or am curious about these truly awful men. They’re not tin-pot dictators. They aren’t visibly ugly. Their humor is gripping, laudable. The ugliness of their violence is what I would never admire.

Yet when they’re joking or confiding in me: I do feel it. Admiration. For their vulnerability, their directness. Their closeness. How readily they admit how they could not function without blood-brothers. A few sisters. They guard each other with valor. Frequently: unselfishly.

Several years before Trump won, not more than eight weeks into my time at the clinic, one or two of the men I worked with said something racist, right to my face, like predatory beasts I cared for suddenly trying to bite my limbs, and I realized that I was done. That it was time to drift again, carrying that hunger within me, for belonging. That they could take too much from me, if I waited, passive, patient, helping them.

That I could find myself, inadvertently supporting their missions.

The day I told all my colleagues I was leaving, leaving all of them for good, my pale-eyed, Jewish doctor–confidante colleague swallowed hard, maybe recalling the anti-Semitic comments that some of these men (and women) also made. Mere hours later he was pretending indifference and, who knows, maybe by then even feeling it. Yet he watched me even more intently that day and let me bypass bureaucracy, honoring, in some small way, our shared experience of valor. How we together had advocated for a female comrade who’d reported sexual violence.

One small comfort, in this post–Trump America (post- in the sense of feeling—something is over, maybe for good; and post- in the optimistic sense, in that surely, 2020 will vote him out). One small comfort is that I bonded with this fellow doctor colleague, in feeling satisfied and proud when the clinic leadership helped this young woman unequivocally, definitively. They got her out of an unjust and corrupt situation, brought into further light when I and the other doctor spoke out.

I think of this small bond with hope. Closeness. Maybe even to save us from the current ugliness in 2020. I think of my military colleagues also with hope, and with respect—even a few reminiscences. Even though I never stayed in touch. Even though I realized, quickly enough, I wouldn’t ever want to pay for that closeness with brutality. With violence even the female survivor of violence had pledged to perpetuate. To have the blood sport of an imperial legacy be what even this girl would say she loved.

I still often imagine this girl. Heading to her future. White. She’d get into a new plane, going far away from the abuser whose career was left untouched, intact. She would have time and space to heal—what I’d wanted for her, what I’d spoken out and used my power for her to get. The freedom I still know for certain she deserved. She’d have new orders, new missions. Be trained to shoot at people whose names were like mine. She’d settle into a blanket with a military insignia, make sure her military ring was turned inward. She’d remember the first time that she ever held a gun. Then feel the cool, small, airplane window on her hand and on her face, hearing the lyric ripple through her head, those were the days that we were going to miss, humming to Miranda Lambert on the headphones, reminding her that no matter where the plane was headed, maybe to a country where she’d never been, a country where my ancestors’ language was spoken, she was an American. Included in jokes about Iraqis, Afghans, other brown people, though she’d challenged the jokes directed at female fighters when they demeaned her.  One of those fires that burned all night. How she would always be American, keeping the power to judge how brown I was, and aim at me, or not.

Photo of Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut short story collection, White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc, 2018), was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Robert Bingham Debut Fiction Prize. A Kirkus Best Book of 2018, it made "best book" lists in Entertainment Weekly, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue India, New York Post, Buzz Feed Books, Book Riot, The Millions, My Domaine, Vulture, Huff Post US and India, Elle, Bustle, BUST, and was reviewed in the LA Times, National Public Radio, Booklist, Kirkus (Starred), Publishers Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, The Dawn, and Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow and Sewanee Writers Workshop scholar.