“What You Keep” by John Pisano

I didn’t keep my uniforms.

When my four years of active duty and four years of inactive reserve were finally up, to the very day, I packed all my uniforms, my forest cammies, desert cammies, service alphas and charlies, even my dress shoes and boots, into a trash bag and brought them to an army surplus store. I got about 100 bucks for a few thousand worth of uniforms and tailoring. 

In 2002 I was in a field PX in Kandahar, Afghanistan. My first deployment. I needed a pair of shower shoes. You have to wear shoes in the shower because wearing boots all day is a breeding ground for bacteria. Then the bacteria get tracked into the shower and people catch athlete’s foot. I needed something better than the standard issue flimsy flip-flops. I needed something that would walk on sand without getting ground down immediately or breaking apart.

The PX is like a general store. It has a little bit of everything at a reasonable markup. I’d already bought a CD player and a few of whatever awful albums were available. I’d lay on my rack with my rifle uncomfortably at my side and blast my eardrums with rap. 

The shoes were Tevas. Sandals that wrapped around the ankle and secured with velcro. They were black and grey with a geometric pattern on the straps. I don’t remember what I paid, but I had the shower shoes I needed.

The shoes spent six months trekking over the sand and gravel in Afghanistan to and from the showers. They spent a few months in Kuwait, then a few more months in Iraq. I wore them whenever I wasn’t on shift. I wore them to be comfortable. 

Anything to let my feet breathe. Years of wearing boots had made me aware of just how delicate our feet can be. In boot camp I had gotten a blister on my heel so big that I had to go to sick call. They drained it with a huge needle and injected it with iodine so the skin would stick. It was excruciating. 

The shoes went with me on R&R to an airbase in the United Arab Emirates. The shoes went everywhere the military sent me. 

I stopped thinking of them as just shower shoes. They were my civvy shoes, my relaxing shoes. They were non-confining. They were a modicum of freedom.

The shoes went with me to Yuma, Arizona on a field operation. More desert, this time populated with baby rattlesnakes and large scorpions. With my thick soles I walked bravely to the shower, heedless of my unprotected toes. The shoes were a little worn by this point, but nothing serious.

They went with me on backyard operations, stumbling in the dark through thick mud, dousing my feet in puddles, feeling the tickle of wet grass. I wore them on field days and weekends and after work and out to dinner. I wore them on my honeymoon. I wore them on holidays. When it got too cold I’d begrudgingly slap on a pair of black and white Chucks, eager for the weather to turn.

I wore those shoes for sixteen years, until I wore a hole clear through the sole. I can’t get rid of them. I can’t wear them. They sit on my shoe rack.

I finally bought a new pair. They’re okay, but they’re not the same.

John Pisano served in the U.S. Marine Corp from 2001 to 2005, deploying both to Afghanistan and to Iraq. He is currently an English major at UCLA and plans to graduate in Fall 2019. He enjoys playing guitar and video games and, of course, writing.