Being a paramedic has its advantages, especially when you’re outnumbered in a bar fight. Aside from my nose and a broken rib, the bulk of my injuries amount to cuts and bruises. Nothing I can’t fix at home. If I had a TV, I’d be watching some after-hours show, preferably a cheesy old horror movie; thin on plot, but highly stylized and creative. Instead, that night, I sit on my balcony as I contemplate the ocean with a bottle of tequila and a cigarette for company.
Get help, that seems to be the recurrent theme in my life lately. The way I see it, that’s exactly how I got to be like this in the first place.
Help, I did that in my civilian life, then as an airman, and now as a first responder. That’s all I’ve ever done is help. I protected my country, served my community, and kept others safe. “These things we do, that others may live” is the motto of the pararescue jumpers or PJs.
I always thought things would turn out differently for me: a nice job with a six-figure salary, a comfortable house, a cool car, my own airplane, and a gorgeous wife. But like John Lennon says, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
My father once told me that it’s not enough for a man to be lucky; that a guy has to know when that streak is on for him. Otherwise, how else can he take advantage of it? But more importantly, a man should be thankful when touched by providence.
Luck, I think, looking at Antonio Montenegro’s card. I never believed in luck, not until I experienced combat. Then I realized how fickle life can be. I don’t care what Einstein said about God not playing dice; If he exists, he’s addicted to craps.
With all this shit on the brain, I drink myself into a stupor. When I wake up to the sound of the ocean, I’m still sitting on the balcony. The sun is about to rise. The butt of my cigarette hangs from my mouth, and its ash has burned a hole in my “Ramones” T-shirt. I’m still holding on to the empty tequila bottle, and the business card has miraculously remained between my fingers. So is this what providence looks like?
“Is this Antonio Montenegro?”
“Yeah, who’s this?”
I realize I never introduced myself. “I’m Eric Caine, the guy you met at the bar yesterday. The one with the smoking issues.”
“Oh shit! How you doing, man? Are you OK?”
“Sure, I’m fine,” I say, as I hold my aching side. “Hey listen, I’m calling to thank you for what you did for me yesterday at the police station. I mean, you didn’t have to—”
“That was fucking intense, dude! I’ve never seen anything like that! Are you a Navy SEAL or something?”
“I’m a paramedic. Listen–”
“You’re kidding me, right? That’s what those guys needed after you polished the floor with them. No, seriously, did you learn that shit in the army?”
“How do you know I’m ex-military?”
“I overheard one of the cops say you were a veteran.”
“Call me Tony,” he says.
“Tony, I just wanted to thank you for what you did last night. That was really nice of you, but you shouldn’t have, really. I hope I didn’t cause you any problems.”
“Nah, no worries, man. I did it more for me than anything else. It wasn’t a big deal. We Venezuelans have to stick together, right?”
As cheesy as the phrase sounds, I can’t argue with that philosophy. “Well, it means a lot to me, and I’d love if I could at least buy you dinner to thank you.”
“You don’t have to…” he says.
That night, I arrive at the Venezuelan steakhouse where we’ve agreed to meet. I like being early; it gives me a chance to get acquainted with my surroundings. The staff seems a little reluctant to serve me. I can’t blame them; I must look like Ed Norton in that scene with his boss in Fight Club. They sit me at a secluded table far away from the other patrons. I nurse a beer while I wait for Tony, and from the corner of my eye, I watch the waiters whisper to each other.
“At least I know how the other guys looked,” Tony says when he arrives.
“Nice to see you again,” I say, shaking his hand.
“Give me a second,” he says, turning to the headwaiter. “Emilio, what’s this? A little further away and we’d be sitting in the parking lot,” he says in Spanish.
“Mr. Montenegro, that was the only table that—”
“Just give me my regular table and call Don Eduardo for me, would you?” says Tony, making the staff scatter about nervously trying to please him.
Soon, we’re sitting at the best table in the house, with a bottle of their finest red, and a doting waiter at our beck and call. Don Eduardo, the owner, comes over to greet us warmly and sits with us for a brief moment. Before leaving us alone, he calls the chef over to make sure we have something special for dinner.
After the usual small talk and a few glasses of wine, we actually start to hit it off. I guess I pegged this guy all wrong.
“You said on the phone that you helped me for your sake. Is this part of some twelve-step program?” I say half-jokingly.
Tony nods and chews his food as if looking for the right words. “My best friend, Lester, he was in the Marines.”
“Oh yeah? Where is he now?”
He suddenly looks somber and says, “He was killed in Fallujah.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, knowing exactly how that feels.
“I know it sounds crazy, but every time I meet someone from the military, I feel obliged to help them. My therapist said it’s some sort of coping mechanism.”
There’s the usual awkward silence that signals that the talk has entered a whole other level. I’m kind of squirming in my seat, hoping I’m not the first to break it.
“Les left med school to join the Marines after 9/11,” Tony continues; his voice sounds distant. “He was outraged about the terrorist attacks and wanted to do something about it. I thought he was such a loser for getting all riled up.”
“That’s not that unusual. I joined the Air Force for the same reason.”
“Really? What were you doing before?”
I take a drink before answering, “Computer stuff. Information security for the most part.”
“Something like that,” I say. “Anyway, my grand father had served as a B-17 co-pilot during WWII, and my father was an F-4 pilot in Vietnam, so the Air Force was a natural choice for me.”
“What did you fly?”
“Nothing, I was a pararescuer.” Anticipating the question, I continue, “I rescued military personnel in hostile areas. We’re basically commandos with paramedic training.”
“Never heard of them,” Tony says, cutting his steak.
“Few people have,” I say. Pararescue jumpers, or PJs, lack the celebrity status of other Special Operation units like the Navy SEALs or the Army Special Forces, and we prefer it that way.
“Why not a pilot? I would have loved to learn how to fly an F-16 or something like that.”
“Oh I know how to fly,” I say. “I’ve had my private license since I was fourteen. It’s just I didn’t want to be stuck with a ten-year contract. Plus, I wanted to be on the ground, you know? Experience combat first hand. In the end, I might as well have taken the pilot route. I signed up for four years, but ended up staying eight.”
“You didn’t re-enlist?”
I take my time to answer. “I guess I had my fill of adventure,” I say. “Now I’m looking to settle for a quiet life.”
“As a paramedic?” Tony says. “How come you didn’t go back to doing computers?”
“Because as far as computers and technology are concerned, eight years is really more like twenty.”
“You can catch up.”
“Sure, but who’s going to bank on a computer relic when they have a bunch of kids ready and willing? At least the Air Force left me with some great paramedic training, or else I don’t know what I’d be doing for a living.”
“That sucks, man. Talk about a sacrifice,” says Tony, sounding sincerely disappointed.
Iraq made no sense to me, but I craved the challenge, the thrill and the camaraderie the Air Force provided. I’m not sure if I could call myself a war junkie. All I know is that after a while, I couldn’t continue to ignore the shameless way my brothers in arms and I were being used by the government.
“You said you were born in Caracas,” Tony says, probably taking my long silence as a signal to change the subject.
“Yeah, my dad was originally from New York,” I say. “He was a petrochemical engineer, so he was relocated a lot.”
“The Middle East?”
“So much so that he even spoke Arabic,” I say. “He was eventually sent to Caracas where he met my mother. She was working as an executive assistant for the same oil company as my old man. How about you?”
“My parents had a condo in South Beach,” Tony says. “They came to Miami any time they could, even on weekends just to do some shopping.”
“Ta’ barato, dame dos?” I say, quoting the famous Venezuelan phrase of the 1970s meaning “that’s cheap, give me two,” due to the favorable exchange from bolívares to dollars. Then in 1983 came El Viernes Negro, Black Friday, the day the bolívar experienced a dramatic devaluation against the US dollar, and everything changed.
“When my mom was pregnant with me, they decided to come here for my birth, so I could have American citizenship,” Tony says.
Tony explains that fortunately he comes from a prominent Venezuelan family, so things didn’t change much for him. They now live in exile due to the current political climate in the country. Tony grew up in Caracas and then went to the University of Chicago, where he majored in Economics. After college, he went on to work for Corso International, one of the largest US-based development companies in the world. It turns out that during his time at Corso, Tony worked in Iraq for two years as a civilian contractor. I never would have guessed we chewed the same dirt, even though he spent most of his time inside the heavily fortified Green Zone and was escorted around by a team of badass mercenaries in armored cars. A year ago, he decided to strike out on his own and opened his own business consulting firm.
By the end of the night, I’m hit with a bill for two hundred dollars. Tony tries to pull a fast one and pay the check, but I manage to get a hold of it and charge it.
“Where’s your car?” Tony asks me as we leave the restaurant.
“I’m parked on the street,” I lie. “Thank you for accepting my invitation, and thank you again for helping me last night.”
“You’ve been thanking me the whole night,” he says. “I’m starting to regret not leaving you in that cell.”
“I’m serious,” I say, shaking his hand.
“So am I,” he laughs. “Listen, I’m throwing a party at my house next Sunday. It’s just a little barbeque with a few friends, nothing big. Why don’t you drop by?”
“Sure.” It’s not like I have anything better to do.
“Cool, I’ll email you my address.”
Tony says goodbye, hops in his Porsche 911 and speeds off into the night. Interesting guy, I think. A few minutes later, I flag down a taxi on Le June Road.
On the ride home, I can’t help but fidget with my lighter and think about my own family. My great grandfather bought the lighter in London before being deployed to Belgium to fight in WWI. When he returned to England, he moved to New York where he got married and worked in construction for the rest of his life. I was told that as terrible as great grandfather’s experiences were, life was really tough back then, so he shrugged it off as just another of its hardships. I wouldn’t be surprised if my great grandfather had found building something with his hands cathartic, just like my grandfather did.
When my grandpa came back from WWII, he used the GI bill to put himself through college and become a civil engineer. He once told me that he chose his profession so he could somehow offset all the destruction and carnage he saw.
Dad, on the other hand, was already a college graduate when he decided to join the Air Force. It was his father’s war stories that compelled him to serve during Vietnam. When he returned, he threw himself into his job and took on civil aviation as a way to “purge the demons of the war.” Ultimately, family became his emotional anchor.
And then I came along. My father was proud when I chose to serve, but he thought I made a mistake by taking the enlisted route. He said that a guy with my intellect and education could easily make it as a fighter pilot. In the end, he understood my reasons for wanting to be part of special operations. After all, a PJ had saved his life once when he was shot down behind enemy lines.
Unlike the rest of the men in my family, I haven’t found anything to ground myself. There’s no job, no family, not even friends. Only me. After saving so many lives, maybe it’s time for me to save my own ass.
The next day, I call the VA and talk to Dr. Goldman. I tell him I’m not into the group thing, but I would like to start private sessions with a therapist. The doc happily helps me to get in contact with a specialist, and I set up an appointment for the following day. I also call my boss to tell him the news, hoping it’ll help my case with the Health Protection Council. Last but not least, I draft a daily workout schedule, which I intend to follow to a T.
Three days later, I’m jogging back home from the gym. I’ve already had my therapy session earlier in the morning, and I’m waiting for a call from my boss regarding my job. My cell phone rings. The caller ID reveals nothing so I answer, hoping it’s from work.
“Hi, may I speak with Mr. Eric Caine?” The woman’s voice is quite pleasant.
“This is he.”
“Mr. Caine, my name is Susan Delgado. I’m with Human Resources at Corso International, and I wanted to confirm our appointment for tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, but what appointment are you talking about?”
“It’s about your job interview at ten o’clock,” she says, as I hear her shuffling papers. “You were recommended to us by Antonio Montenegro for a position in our Information Department as a senior information officer. Do you need to re-schedule?”
What the hell?
“Mr. Caine, are you still there?”
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Genre – Political Thriller
Rating – R