My friend is giving me a guilt trip from a thousand miles away and he doesn't even know it. He stands in front of an airplane posturing like a rapper in front of an Escalade, hands flashing fake gang signs. His face snarls at the camera in mock effrontery.
It would be funny but, instead of sporting 20-inch rims, his ride is adorned with 1,000-pound missiles under ample wings and covered in an ashen gray coat of military paint. Beyond the plane, I can see over the prow of the aircraft carrier to an unnamed sea of greens and blues that stretch to shores I'll never know.
I'm not on the aircraft carrier with him, of course. He's merely shared this photo album with his friends via the magic of Facebook, allowing me to be a civilian voyeur.
No, instead of defending against the forces of "evil," I'm doing another American duty: gobbling up real estate. This month, I am moving into my first home, a renovated townhouse in Carrboro. It's modest and comfortable, with nearby trails and a cement patio in the back for cool fall evenings. I'm here building my humble version of The American Dream. But now, thanks to my friend, this bothers me.
Mainstream media notwithstanding, this is the most authentic view of military life that I've seen. A few amateurish snapshots taken on what looks like a typical day in the Navy remind me that there are real people out in the world making such quotidian things as the farmers' market and my new homeowners' association possible.
In the pictures, my friend seems changed from the last time I saw him. Most noticeably, he looks enormous.
In high school, he was a tall and wiry swimmer, just skin and bones, moving like he was held together by rubber bands. Even after he graduated from the Naval Academy a few years ago, around the last time we saw each other, he was bulkier but very much the same. Now he looks like the kind of person who tears phonebooks apart. Where did this bear of a man come from? And, more worrisome, where is he now?
As I reach the end of the album, the aircraft carrier shrinks away and my friend is suddenly miles above the earth. From his cockpit, he's snapped a few pictures of a small bay with green shores. There are images of mountainous cloud banks, American flags and even my friend drinking a Corona with his fellow servicemen.
And then it's over, my brief reunion with my friend and my whiff of Navy life. Though I know I've no right to be, I'm a bit dissatisfied. I want more. I want to know what life is really like for him. I want to know that he still has his sense of humor. I want to know if we're winning or losing in Iraq and elsewhere. But, for now, a whiff is all I have. I'll try not to forget it, and hope to see him again soon.