Jean from West Virginia

I picked up Jean and Michael inside of Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego County, California. Michael, though large with a stocky, six-foot frame, looked no older than a teenage boy. Jean, whom I took to be his girlfriend or wife, also had the face of a child–slightly chubby, but beginning to show the sharper contours of womanhood. Both of them were friendly and spoke with something of a Southern twang.

Michael needed to get to another part of the base, which stretches for hundreds of acres beyond the Pacific Coast Highway, south of Dana Point, from where I received notification of their Lyft request. I had to travel seven miles inland from the shore in order to collect them at an apartment complex within the camp compound.

After Jean and Michael were situated in the back, air travel luggage packed into the trunk of my car, I asked Michael about his time on base. He said that he’s been in the Marines for six months now out of West Virginia–a rural city called Beckley–and that he had spent the last three months in California. He was in South Carolina before.

He said that he was awaiting deployment and that Jean, who I later learned is his fiance, was out on a weekend visit. Michael does not know where he will be sent, but it will likely be overseas–maybe Japan–though he mentioned that a troop of Marines were being sent to the border in light of the caravan coming North from Central America. Michael, 21 years old, is a combat engineer, which he became by way of training.

When I dropped him off at a mostly empty parking lot just outside of a campsite–rows of cylindrical bunkers that looked like tin cans cut in half–he did not reach over to kiss his partner. Instead, he looked over and, without affectation, said, “Ok. I’ll talk to you later.” He thanked me, exited the car, grabbed his luggage out of the trunk and walked toward the tin cans like it was his duty.

I pulled away, his partner still in the back seat, and waited in a brief moment of silence before initiating a conversation–one that lasted the 80-mile, two-hour trek to Los Angeles International Airport–with Jean, an 18 year-old pharmacy technician-in-training.

“So how long will he be gone?”

“Seven months.”

“How do you correspond?”

“Well, he’s not sure that there will be service for cell phones where he will be stationed. And there is also a security issue with them because of some hacking, so we’ll stay in touch by e-mail.”

“That must be hard.”

“Not really, actually,” Jean said, “We both work all of the time, so we barely see each other anyways. It won’t really feel that different.”

Jean’s demeanor, nonchalant and matter-of-fact, made for a comfortable car ride, as if we were two friends catching up.

Currently, she lives on the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, a city in Cabell County, West Virginia, of around 49,000 people–a good 32,000 more than Beckley, the small, backwoods town from where she hails. While she finishes the schooling necessary to take up employment back in Beckley, she works at McDonald’s. She is a self-motivated learner who finished high school in three years and, in that time, started obtaining online credits toward the degree for which she is presently working.

The daughter of a milkman and a pharmacy technician, Jean is a homebody who loves to go hiking in the wilderness of West Virginia and enjoys reading when she finds a book that interests her. One such book, which she picked up from a sociology class that she dropped early on in the fall semester, is critically-acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones‘ renown Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate EpidemicThe book chronicles the coterminous spread in the 1990s of black heroin from Mexico and painkillers such as OxyContin from big pharma across America’s small and mid-sized cities, leaving in their wake wastelands of addiction. Huntington, riddled now with crime and poverty, according to Jean, is one such space–given due attention in Quinones’ book.

Jean despises Huntington, but decided to attend college there because she did not want to attend a school as large as West Virginia University. She is highly individualistic in her style of learning and, quite simply, does not enjoy school. Despite this, she is getting her work done so that she can establish a life for herself.

Her aspirations do not reach much farther than West Virginia, however. Perhaps this is why she is betrothed at 18. When I asked her about living outside of the state she did not express any real interest in moving. I asked her about her stay in California and she did not seem impressed by it. Too much traffic and no change of season. Jean appreciates fall colors and does not feel inclined toward the ways of the big city, having grown up on land with a lot of acreage. She and Michael, who spent their respective childhoods ten minutes apart from each other and whose fathers are friends, will get married one day. “But I’m not about that right now,” Jean said, “I have my own life to live.”

She struck me as an independent woman whose ho-hum resignation to small-town life in an economically depressed state betrayed a deeper curiosity about the wider world, evidenced in her penchant for reading. “I’m the person with the book during break,” she told me earlier in our conversation, as we were discussing Dreamland. A former community college teacher, I told her I was glad to hear that, especially that she was so taken with the required reading of her dropped course that she stayed with it even after she left the class.

As we were approaching the interminable traffic leading into LAX, our conversation finally reaching a lull, I turned toward my satchel on the front seat next to me and pulled out the latest copy of The Atlantic, volumes of which I have stacked in the back pouch of my passenger seat.

“Here,” I said, “Check this out. You may find it of interest.

Jean did not hesitate, but accepted the gesture, if only to be polite perhaps, and set to paging through the text. When I took a look back through the rear-view mirror I saw that she was genuinely engaged, chuckling at something she found funny.

“This is really good,” she said, “I like to read about politics.”

She then stacked the magazine neatly in with the others as we arrived at Terminal 8 for her flight on United. I wanted to tell her to get out of West Virginia. Go explore. But something told me I didn’t need to.




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