In the process of helping my favorite American uncle reap all that the American government owes him for having sacrificed his body, IQ, and Catholic soul in Vietnam, I’m learning a feminine distinction: the difference between friends with benefits versus GETTING SEXUALLY HARASSED AT THE V.A. FOR THE SAKE OF SECURING YOUR UNCLE’S BENEFITS.
The first time I visited Long Beach’s VA facility, I noticed that everybody there seemed either too relaxed (disassociated) or too alert (hyper vigilant). Nobody’s emotional teeter totter rested sanely between the two polarities. The mood created by everybody’s mental instability made me want to put my Vans to work and jog faggily away, but I stayed, feeling mildly encouraged by framed black and white pictures of women at war decorating the hallway outside the Red Vadge of Courage (Women’s) Clinic.
My psychological vagina escaped that initial visit without bruising but it was not so lucky during my second sojourn.
For my second visit, I brought my uncle. He needed to be photographed for his veteran’s ID card, which, by the way, affords him some hefty discounts at Kohl’s and other places where he doesn’t shop. While my uncle sat in a waiting area, near two gentlemen arguing over “which piece of shit chair” to sit in, I sat across from a clerk at his reception desk. I stated that I was chaperoning my uncle with the intent of getting his ID, and that we had an appointment. The clerk eyed me, smirked, and said, “You got an exotic look to you.” My exotic eyes bulged extra exotically.
“I can work with that,” he added.
“YOU’RE A DICK. I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO FUCKING WORK WITH THAT,” I thought to myself. Layered on top of this thought was , “YOU’RE BLACK.” Swirling around this thought was an urge to tell him HE looked exotic so that he would know how stupid it sounded, his stupid orientalizing of the “exotic” creature which is so laden with sexual baggage (baggage should be pronounced with a French accent to make it sound exotic) that it wears a snakeskin negligee. Nonetheless, since I really want my favorite American uncle to get what he’s owed, I gave the seemingly Abyssinian clerk my stiffest smile and maintained a professional ‘tude despite my othering.
Tiger left the desk to go tell the social worker that my uncle and I were there. While waiting, I glanced down at my ragged Virginia Slims t-shirt and pondered how it had taken two sentences to undo the company’s slogan.
A door beside the desk opened and a social worker called my uncle’s name.
I scampered to this teddy bear, said, “Hi,” and unexotically introduced myself, explaining that I’m my uncle’s advocate. As I was saying, “I have some questions about blabetty blabetty blah…” I followed the big guy down a hall and into a plain GI Jane office, where he gestured and invited, “Have a seat.” I plopped onto a chair whose discomfort rated an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, public middle school furniture uncomfortable, and while I was describing my uncle’s history-homelessness, schizophrenia, animal hoarding, a case of the Michael J. Fox’s-the social worker looked at my fingers.
“Are you married?” he asked a little lustily.
“Yes,” I replied, though I withheld the reality of my marriage, that I was wedded informally, at the LA zoo, and that the nuptials were witnessed by two awesome friends and a cassowary, an entity that happens to be Grace Jones as a bird.
The social worker then asked, “Any kids?”
I answered, “I have pets.”
He chuckled and this relieved the awkwardness stoked by the ARE YOU MARRIED, WHY YES I AM, HOMESLICE incident.
Turning and typing information into a computer, he located my uncle’s files and explained his level of service connection. We discussed my uncle’s mental health for a bit and the social worker suggested that my uncle’s schizophrenia might actually be PTSD. He mini-lectured me about PTSD and shared that he’s intimate with it. He caught it while serving in the navy.
I explained, “So did I. From a rape.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, looking down at the federally-subsidized carpet. “The military has a huge problem with that,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the things we hear around here.”
“I think I would,” I offered.
We spoke some more, our conversation wound down, I gathered my papers to leave, and the social worker said, “I’m sorry if I came on a little strong when you first got here. It’s just that, you only live once.” Oh god, I was getting YOLOed.
“It’s alright,” I said to him. “I know how to work with people like you,” and wondered what form the misogyny would take next time I returned to the VA.